The Professor Is In: Q&A with Andrés Villagrá

Dyson Associate Dean Andrés Villagrá talks his love of languages, what he values in his students, and more in this month’s The Professor Is In. >>Read More

Associate Dean of Dyson College and professor of foreign language Andrés Villagrá, PhD, has made it his mission to revitalize education and students’ participation in the classroom using innovative techniques and technologies. He is considered a pioneer in the use of technology in the classroom in creative and interesting ways to help students better communicate in foreign languages—particularly Spanish. One of his most innovative projects: “The Spanish Lounge”, a collaborative learning space, utilizes wiki, Facebook, YouTube, and Blackboard technology to develop the skills of foreign language students. Currently, Villagrá has teamed up with the Seidenberg School of Computer Science and Information Systems to develop Qué Pasa en Pace?, a project for which he received a Verizon Thinkfinity grant. The mobile app is intended to bridge the gap between prospective Latino students and the University by encouraging current students to help Hispanic students navigate college life in areas such as residential living, finding a job, and obtaining financial aid.

What was your favorite class? Least favorite?
I very much enjoyed a Latin course I took I took when I was 15 years old. There was a professor who really taught the course in a way that not only infused in me the love of Latin and languages, but also turned my student attitude around. His impact was not so much about the subject matter, but I started to love learning as an adventure and as a tool for personal growth.

The course I was not so good with was chemistry. It’s not that I didn’t perform well, but I prefer to work with abstract theories, although I can be very creative in problem-solving situations and think “outside the box” as they say.

What one thing or person made you passionate about your current career?
I have received so much support from a lot of people during my entire career, including from all of my colleagues here at Pace. Family, teachers, and friends have all helped me become who I am today, both in and out of the classroom.

What quality do you most value in your students?
I like students that show what we call “Superacion”; it means desire for self-improvement or to desire to overcome.  I love to see students that are passionate, take risks, and push themselves. Inevitably those are the students who don’t hesitate to ask for help and “pick your brain” to get a better understanding. One can immediately feel when those individuals are thirsty for knowledge and they want to get 110% of their experience as a student in your class. My job is to help them so they can take flight on their own. Thanks to Facebook, I know that one of these students is starting her PhD studies at Columbia. Those students are my inspiration. 

What’s your advice to students to make the most out of their time in college?
Explore, venture, try, engage, and try again. Ask for guidance. Learn to deal with difficulties, pressure, and challenges. Research and collaborate. Realize that your attitude, your responses to what you’re doing right now—no matter how much pressure you may be experiencing—is going to be how you will react in your first job. You hear students saying “I’m so stressed” or “It is so much work” and then those same students are at graduation telling me how quickly these four years went by. Therefore, enjoy this time in college to grow, practice, and learn. And get the most of it because these years at Pace go very fast.

If you had to do it all over again and took another path, what profession would you like to attempt? What profession would you not like to do?
When I finished high school I wanted to be a journalist, an Anderson Cooper type of person reporting on critical issues from around the world. However, there was no university program available in my city and I could not afford going to Madrid or Barcelona to study. That was the end of my dream as a TV reporter. In spite of this setback, my academic research in the study of Autobiography in Spanish and Latin American Literatures is devoted to authors and works dealing with the consequences of the Spanish Civil War, exile and imprisonment, so I kept some kind of journalism on my radar. I have a considerable amount of publications in this subject in the U.S., Europe, and Latin America.

In the last few years I have been using technology in the classroom and I very much enjoy the creativity and wide experimentation it affords. It feels very natural to me. Although I like technology, a profession I would not like is anything dealing with statistical data and administrative tasks that don’t lead to immediate improvement and growth.

What is your favorite book/TV show?
I grew up reading a lot of Jules Verne. When I was about 14 I would buy the Sunday paper that came with a sort of volume of classics of literature so I was reading almost a book a week. I was reading the greats authors of World Literature:  Victor Hugo, the classics, Cervantes, Kafka, and Proust.

At the time to decide my major, literature came very naturally for me because in class we were going over readings that I had already done. I would say my favorite writers, and well-known authors to the American audiences, are “The Garcías”: Federico García Lorca and Gabriel García Márquez. They both use a language rich of images, metaphors, and sensibility to depict the heroism, the adventure, and the tragedy in life through poetry and fiction.

I have a TV at home but rarely turn it on. I watch TV on the Internet à la carte in 5 different languages, mostly news, foreign films, and science and nature documentaries. Recently, I saw the movie The Master. I wish the director had hired me as a consultant to help that movie become “a classic” that could have been.

What would you do if you had an extra hour every day?
If I had an extra hour a day I would spend it with people. I would dedicate it to organizations I support— home food delivery to the terminally ill-people or wildlife rescue. I would really take that time to use it for others. I would invite people over for nice dinners—cooked by me—and conversation.

What is your favorite journey/experience?
For my first three years at the university, I was working full-time at a jewelry store while going to school. By the time I was in my fourth year, I quit working and started receiving unemployment help. With no immediate financial pressure on me and my family, I became one of the best students in my program. At that point, I was offered the opportunity to move to the United States to study for my PhD. I couldn’t believe it, “They’re going to pay me to study?” I could not pass on an opportunity like that. Today I am the first PhD in my family, a professor, and an Associate Dean at our prestigious University in New York.

If you could have any five people, living or dead, imagined or real, as guests at a dinner party, who would you choose?
Five people: My father who passed away when I was 11, my mother who is an advanced Alzheimer’s patient for the last 15 years, my aunt who most suffered the ravages of war, and two of my mentors, one put me on the right track and the other who pushed me to finish my doctorate. I would love the opportunity to express to them my gratitude for their confidence in me and for all the wisdom and support I received.

What is your favorite saying/words to live by?
Words to live by:  “Absorb and deliver.” Learn as much as you can and give it back to help others be better themselves at every moment.

Interview by Pace student Sarah Aires ’14