Friday Faculty Focus: Dr. Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado


September 2nd, 2016

Dr. Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado has been at UNO for more than 16 years. He shares his experiences in this week's Friday Faculty Focus. (Photo by Brandon McDermott)

Dr. Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado has been at UNO for more than 16 years. He shares his experiences in this week’s Friday Faculty Focus. (Photo by Brandon McDermott)

Friday Faculty Focus with Brandon McDermott airs each Friday at 7 a.m. and noon on KVNO. In this week’s episode of Friday Faculty Focus, Brandon sits down with Dr. Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado, the Assistant Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

Brandon: Dr. Benjamin Alvarado thanks for joining us on the show.

Dr. Benjamin-Alvarado: Thank you.

Brandon: You’ve recently been named the interim director of the Office of Latino and Latin American Studies or OLLAS at UNO. Talk about OLLAS and what the new role means to you and UNO.

Dr. Benjamin-Alvarado: What’s interesting about this is that I was the founding assistant director of OLLAS some 13 years ago. Over the course of the past decade or so, I’ve stepped into other roles at the university. So, I haven’t been as directly involved in OLLAS. But when the need for an interim director came up, I spoke with a number of folks on campus and we felt that this was the best way to transition to a new director. So, essentially my role will be to conduct a national search and an international search actually to bring a new OLLAS director to UNO.

Then I’ve launched a couple initiatives in parallel to that. One of the things that I’m going to be doing is using the OLLAS director position to launch a campus wide Latino learning community that will incorporate all of the various Latino scholarship programs or programs where Latino students are found. So, we’ll be drawing in students from both the Goodrich in the Thompson Learning Communities in addition to the Dreamers Pathway Scholarship which was just created last year which is specifically for those Dreamer students who couldn’t attend the university otherwise. And then to also bring in some of the social organizations , the fraternities and sororities and student organizations that are Latino affinity groups for the most part to create an umbrella organization that will really focus on really trying to help students to meet the challenges of college.

One of the things that we do know is that we’re seeing a significant growth in the Latino student population. And so with my assistant vice chancellor hat, I really kind of focus on what we can do better for the students so they can make progress toward graduation and that’s really the ultimate aim of what we’re doing.

Brandon: Talk about the previous director of OLLAS, Dr. Lourdes Gouveia. What did she do to further the prominence and sustainability of OLLAS at UNO?

Dr. Benjamin-Alvarado: Dr. Gouveia played an important foundational role for what this university is now doing. She focused a lot on the impact of the immigrant populations coming to the state of Nebraska. How that was going to transform the state: not only demographically, but socially, and economically, and now politically. So she laid a lot of the groundwork that we’re now seeing come to fruition. In particular she was instrumental in developing OLLAS reports. While they were purely academic in nature, they were designed primarily to really help; government officials, legislators, educators, and the social service agencies in the state are prepared to have a better sensitivity both culturally and linguistically to the needs of the Latino population.

I think her role cannot be overemphasized and how invaluable it was in making Nebraska a more welcoming place for Latinos coming to the state and now for the university because we are seeing double digit growth annually of Latinos here at UNO. She’s played such a large role in helping the university to be able to do the things that it does well. So we really owe a debt of gratitude to her.

Brandon: You’ve been here you know since two thousand. How has the campus changed? And talk about your time as a Maverick.

Dr. Benjamin-Alvarado: Well it has changed remarkably. It was everything that I thought it could possibly be. I did do a lot of research before I came here. And I did know and understand that the demographic changes were going to have an impact on the university. What I didn’t see was the way that the university would become such an anchor to this to this part of the city. But also within the state that it has continued to raise its stature in terms of what it offers academically. Now, with the transition to Division-I sports it’s really created a buzz around campus about all the wonderful things that are here (which) are available for students. I really count my lucky stars having made a solid decision to come here, because it’s paid off in more ways than I could possibly imagine.

Brandon: You teach several courses focusing on politics and U.S. Foreign Relations. What do you emphasize to your students or your classes?

Dr. Benjamin-Alvarado: I always tell my students at the beginning of the semester: This isn’t a class or these are not classes where there are right or wrong answers. What I’m hoping students understand is that there’s a breadth of perspectives from which they can draw on, to inform their analysis. So, I would like them not to offer me opinions, but to offer me some analysis based upon evidence and to allow that to guide more fruitful and deeper discussions about these issues. I think Americans as a whole really have stepped away from that as kind of the way in which they engage with other people.

Gross oversimplifications really undermine people’s abilities to really have the types of frank discussions about the impact of our relations with the rest of the world and vice versa. We have to think about that on an ongoing basis. Obviously with the fact that we are engaged in a war that has been going on for 15 years, it really causes one to pause and think about: the things we haven’t’ learned, the legacies of the actions we’ve taken, and what will we have to do in order to move beyond that. So I try equipping students with the knowledge and understanding of those complex issues sufficiently enough  so when they get into roles of decisions making; and that’s what many of them want to do, they want to be decision makers; I feel an obligation to try to provide them with the best skills possible.

Brandon: I read you travel to Cuba more than twenty times and worked closely with the intelligence community, talk about that.

Dr. Benjamin-Alvarado: Well, I wrote my doctoral dissertation on Cuba’s attempt to develop a nuclear energy capability. That was back in their 80s and 90s with the Russians, so I’m dating myself a bit here. But what was important about that work was that, we were trying to understand how Cuba really a relatively poor country would undertake one of the most complex technological and scientific endeavors in any country can do. There were questions certainly about the safety and the validity of their of the project and it really led me down a path of discovery because. I had questions about the rationale for what they were doing and some of those questions are still relevant today.

But what I think is really important about it now is that I have a much finer understanding of what that country is and how it functions and it’s allowed me to continue to work in Cuba for the last quarter century. I mostly focus on energy policy and development so, what we’re seeing now with this new boom and in tourism is really bracketed by the base knowledge that I have about so much of the infrastructure internal workings of the government and so you know once again I feel very fortunate to have had that opportunity and the type of subject that everybody wants to know about. So, it gave me quite a bit of currency in Washington D.C. and other places where people talk about these things much more regularly than in Omaha, Nebraska.

Brandon: Is there anything else you’d like to add before we go?

Dr. Benjamin-Alvarado: just want to say that I feel very fortunate to be able to serve not only the UNO community but in particular the students here. My question is ‘what can I do as both a faculty member but also as an administrator to ensure that our students have the best experience possible that will prepare them for the world out there.’ I think UNO is really, really doing a remarkable job. There are people who are fully dedicated to that enterprise and it makes it a lot of fun to work with them. So, I really find myself to be fortunate in that regard.

Brandon: Thanks Dr. Benjamin-Alvarado for joining me.

Dr. Benjamin-Alvarado: You’re welcome. Have a nice day.

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