A Conversation with Vice President for Strategic Initiatives and Operations Dr. Jose B. Alvarez
Dr. Jose B. Alvarez was born in Venezuela and has worked and lived on 3 different continents. He has worked as JCU’s Vice President for Strategic Initiatives and Operations for two years. He received an M.A. in Latin American Literature with a minor in Political Science from Colorado State University. He also earned a Ph.D. in Latin American Studies: culture, film, literature from Arizona State University.
Please tell us about your background. What brought you to Rome and JCU?
I define myself as an academic by training. After receiving my Ph.D., I started teaching at the University of Georgia (UGA), where I became a tenured professor first, and subsequently part of the administration. I came to Italy about 11 years ago for family reasons, and my job shifted from being primarily a faculty member working mostly with graduate students, to being an administrator in international education. I worked with different study abroad providers and then two years ago I had the opportunity to start working at JCU. My role is to seek out strategic partnerships, recruit new students, and establish relationships with universities in the U.S. Given the pandemic, I have been focusing primarily on operations and managing the response to COVID. I miss being in the classroom so eventually, I would like to occasionally teach a class.
You have been at JCU for almost 2 years. What is your overall impression so far?
I have been impressed by the diversity of the students and faculty. John Cabot University has a combination of undergraduate degree and study abroad students from all over the world. Very few universities can claim such a unique student body. Furthermore, there are faculty from many different cultural, religious, and ethnic backgrounds.
Additionally, one of the University’s greatest surprises was the faculty research production. Although JCU is primarily a teaching institution, there are many faculty members who are active researchers publishing in some of academia’s most prestigious presses.
You are the Chair of the Taskforce on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. Please tell us about the mission of the Taskforce and what initiatives you are planning for the future.
President Pavoncello appointed me last summer to lead the Taskforce with my co-chair Professor Kwame Phillips. The committee consists of faculty, staff, and students. Our first initiative was to conduct a survey of the JCU community to understand how to improve diversity on campus. We presented recommendations to President Pavoncello for areas of improvement based on the survey.
In your career, you have created several study abroad programs, such as ‘UGA en España.’ Why do you think studying abroad has become so popular in recent years? What are some important things to keep in mind when creating a study abroad program?
In recent years, students have increasingly realized the need for an international experience. The important aspect of creating a study abroad program is choosing a location where the students want to go. It is important to take into consideration trends, look at markets, and create partnerships with other universities. It is also important to meet the needs not only of the students, but also those of faculty, parents, and administrators. We don’t want to look at students as customers; instead, our aim should be to find the best ways to enhance their education. Also, international internships have grown exponentially in recent years because they help develop useful soft skills and employers look for these experiences.
What are the advantages of the American educational system?
Although it is often criticized, I see much value in the American system of higher education, which I believe strengthens students’ critical thinking and problem-solving abilities. It trains students to think with their own heads, to form their own ideas, and to support them with evidence. The American educational system rewards you for being inquisitive and for approaching an issue from different points of view. One advantage is its focus on the Socratic method. Students are viewed as producers of knowledge. Professors are interested in students’ ability to produce knowledge. When I taught at UGA, I liked to use the analogy of the classroom as an orchestra. As a professor, I was just the conductor; I needed the students as the orchestra in order to create an effective classroom experience. The American classroom experience is not just focused on taking notes and consuming information; it is centered on active participation. Professors want to hear students’ opinions and beliefs. Having students memorize information so they can repeat it is not an effective way to educate. Students need to think critically, and this mindset is a very big part of John Cabot University.
The average cost of tuition and fees for colleges has risen exponentially in recent years. Do you think that the American educational system (and private education, especially) helps perpetuate social inequalities today?
I believe that society has to provide the best opportunities for everyone to succeed. The U.S. education system is not equal. This inequality stems from the disparity of quality education depending on where children go to kindergarten. Where students live significantly affects the caliber of education they will receive. I don’t think it’s so much about private institutions, because I believe that you can get an excellent education in public universities as well.
When it comes to college, people can receive a fine education in the U.S. without going to an Ivy League school or other top universities. Nonetheless, the price tag of education is too high, and something needs to be done. Another issue with the American higher education system is student loans. It is far too easy for students to get into debt. I am shocked when I hear about students who owe tens of thousands of dollars in student loans. Moreover, students often do not foresee the financial burden of student loan debt. American higher education is extremely valuable, so finding solutions to these problems is crucial.
Where do you see JCU in 10 years?
I see JCU setting trends in higher education and being an example in the field of international education, despite its small size.