CSUMB’s new president invites people to call her Vanya


By Walter Ryce

Early childhood and education

Vanya Quiñones was born in Arecibo, a small seaside town in northern Puerto Rico. She spent her summers there on her grandparents’ farm, where she learned a lot about the community and family approach to work.

“No matter your level or your background, we work together for the good of the farm,” she said. “To be successful, you have to work cohesively, as a team.”

Many of his family members are still in Arecibo, but Quiñones spent most of his upbringing with his parents and siblings in San Juan, the island’s largest city as well as its capital.

She said Puerto Rican culture values ​​family, respect for elders, faith, hard work and pride. And, typical of Puerto Ricans, she has a lineage of Spaniards and Portuguese, Africans and Taino natives. And this sense of belonging to different heritages promotes broad solidarity and empathy.

His family values ​​education and Quiñones sought it out. Because Puerto Rico is part of the United States, the higher education system is similar except for one thing: it was free or nearly free for students.

She first studied and pursued art, which she described as a method of understanding the world. But she also took science and pre-med classes, following a family tradition of rigorous academic coursework.

During her studies, a science teacher recognized her unique point of view and invited her to work in his laboratory. This accelerated her on a science-oriented course.

“I tell students, ‘One person can change your life, one opportunity can change your future,'” she said. “I think the whole point of college is to broaden your horizons, and you should say yes to all opportunities because they move you forward.”

For her, that meant getting a bachelor’s degree in biology and a master’s degree in cell biology, both from the University of Puerto Rico, and then a doctorate in neurobiology and physiology from Rutgers University.

Work and career

She landed what she calls a dream appointment for scientists as a postdoctoral associate at Rockefeller University in New York, a world-leading research university and studied neuroscience at a time when it was still a relatively new field. One problem she perceived was that most research was conducted primarily on men, and she wanted to change that.

“I am very proud to be one of the pioneers of [gender] differences in the brain. There were a handful of people working on female differences and hormonal effects,” she said. “Now it’s mandatory to include women in any brain research.”

By this point, she had accumulated a wealth of experience navigating the worlds of higher education and in-depth scientific research. But after a while, she realized it wasn’t perfect for the kind of impact she wanted to have in other people’s lives. She was eager to help young people guide their own journeys.

“I was the only minority in the lab. I was one of the few minorities in Rockefeller,” she said. “I think education is the number one tool for diversity, equity and inclusion to address social mobility.”

She approached Hunter College of CUNY, a public university in New York, and persuaded them to hire her as a professor to expand her mentoring efforts and provide students with research and training opportunities.

She has also published 70 peer-reviewed articles and around 200 presentations, monographs and invited lectures; she has achieved academic and professional accolades, increased responsibilities, and millions in funding.

His research group published new findings, showing, among other things, that: “Estrogen and progesterone alter drug abuse and pain-induced behavioral and physiological responses.”

“Somebody says something, you ask ‘why is that’ and you walk down that rabbit hole for 27 years,” she explained.

She was at Hunter College at CUNY for over 20 years, teaching and serving as chair of the psychology department and finally as vice chair. In 2018, she went to Pace University, also in New York, where she became provost and executive vice president for academic affairs, as well as a full professor in the Department of Psychology.

President of CSUMB

On August 15, 2022, Quiñones began her term as the fourth president of CSUMB. She said she was drawn to CSUMB as a relatively young institution with a lot of potential and for its dedication to students who might not otherwise have the opportunity to go to college.

Amid the flurry of activity, she spoke with faculty, staff and new freshmen at graduation. His first week was filled with meetings, events and informal get-togethers to introduce himself to campus.

At her welcome reception on August 17, she spoke to an audience of faculty and staff at the University Center. She thanked the congregation, saying she was humbled and touched by everyone’s receptivity to her. She insisted on being called Vanya instead of President Quiñones.

She said she wants to move forward together, transparently, on enrollment, academic programs, diversity, equity and inclusion, and student success; she wants the CSUMB to be a model of higher education as well as a cultural center for the region.

“I can’t wait to get to know you and I want you to see me as a partner,” she said, recalling the community spirit of her grandparents’ farm. “My aspirations are the same as yours.”

She cracked jokes and cracked jokes saying, “If you see me lost and I’m going around in circles, just let me know. [executive assistant] Hayley.”

She said she tries to lead with gratitude – joining her hands in the añjali mudrā gesture to reinforce the message.

Participants described his address as “refreshing”, “welcoming” and “warm”.

Ondine Gage, an associate professor in liberal studies, said she and other faculty members appreciate his interest in connecting with them and with the university’s vision and mission.

“She’s very human, sincere,” Gage continued. “We need this after the pandemic and Zoom and masks.”

Gus Leonard, the Language Lab coordinator, said he humbly and gratefully appreciated his leadership and his “shared type of leadership”.

Sydney Ontiveros, Administrative Support Coordinator at the School of Computing and Design, said: “She doesn’t seem discouraged. She seems motivated…to support the students.”

Social, Behavioral and Global Studies professor Angie Tran said: “I love the message of spending time with faculty and staff. Listen to us, go to our meetings.”

Nathaniel Jue, associate professor of biology and chemistry, said he was heartened by her talking about student success beyond just the number of graduates, but in the future as alumni and how they succeed after graduation.

Speaking about his leadership style, Quiñones referenced a South African proverb which translates to: “I am because we are”.

She clarified later.

“It would be pretty lonely if all the ideas came from me,” she said. “A stronger movement comes from everyone together than just one person. My style is team building and community building, trust and listening to people.

“You can’t be you until you hug everyone.”

Outside of education, another of her passions is fighting homelessness through volunteer work and serving on the board of a homeless shelter.

She enjoys running, spinning, lifting weights, hiking and yoga. She describes herself as a football fan and has an omnivorous taste for music.

She wants the campus community and the wider community to get to know her in the months ahead, and vice versa, and then find alignment on common goals for the years of work ahead.


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