Dr. Maria Puerta-Riera Talks about the Benefits of a Career at a Community College & How COVID-19 is Likely to Affect These Institutions

Dr. Maria Puerta-Riera, Ana G. Méndez University and Valencia College

Dr. Maria Puerta-Riera is a political scientist with a doctorate in cultural studies, dedicated to political analysis, specializing in issues related to democracy in Venezuela and Latin America. She is currently teaching social sciences (Research Techniques in Social Sciences; Contemporary Economic, and Political Issues; Individual, Community, Government, and Social Responsibility, Introduction to Social Science, and Social Problems) and political science (International Politics; State and Local Government, and US Government) at Ana G. Méndez University and Valencia College in Orlando, Florida. She is a member of the Executive Committee of the Section on Venezuelan Studies of LASA (2019-2021), and the Committee on the Status of Contingent Faculty in the Profession of APSA (2020-2022).

What’s a typical week like at Valencia College? What energizes you about working at a community college?

I am an Adjunct professor, teaching 4 courses: one online, one hybrid and two face-to-face. I don’t have office hours, so my week is usually devoted to my classes, with most of my work (planning, grading) being done off-campus. I teach at another college, a Puerto Rican university (Ana G. Méndez University) where I teach two face-to-face classes at the Orlando campus and one (or two) online classes for the San Juan campus. The most important motivation for me is to make my student’s experience inspiring enough for them to consider attending the University of Central Florida for their Bachelor’s degree.

One of the challenges many of those students experience is a combination of financial and work-life struggles, so I consider myself to be in a position that can help them make decisions regarding their academic future.

What did you study in graduate school? Can you say a little bit about your research?

I have a Master’s degree in Political Science and Public Administration, and a Doctorate of Social Sciences, with a concentration in Cultural Studies. I have been working in the field of Latin American politics, specifically the Venezuelan crisis, with special emphasis on the decline of democracies in the region. My research interests are democracy and its crises, deficit, decline, and building-processes in Latin America; hybrid regimes; authoritarianism and populism. I am currently working on the regression of democracy, the populist consolidation, and the immigration crisis.

The community college environment is open to people who want the opportunity to engage in a meaningful teaching experience with the goal of developing a long-term academic career.

Why and when did you choose to pursue a career in a community college?

After I moved to the US from Venezuela, I started to look at the options in the academic and professional market in Central Florida, where I am currently living. I found it to be reduced, compared to other cities, and therefore, very competitive. I first started teaching part-time at Ana G. Méndez University, a Puerto Rican college, and a year later at Valencia College, a community college that is part of the Florida state college system. The transition from a research to a teaching institution has given me the opportunity to grasp the higher education experience in the US, along with the intensive learning-centered training.

In what ways did your doctoral training help you in your career?

I have a research background that benefited greatly from my doctoral experience, and as a tenured professor in Venezuela, it was also a requirement of the position I held. The doctorate has opened doors to opportunities for collaboration with scholars from other countries, giving visibility to my research, that otherwise would have been very difficult to achieve.

Do you have any advice for PhD students considering a career in a community college?

I think it is a great opportunity for those interested in a career in higher education. Having teaching experience is necessary even if research is the ultimate goal, and community colleges are the perfect place to gain that teaching experience and continue training. The community college environment is open to people who want the opportunity to engage in a meaningful teaching experience with the goal of developing a long-term academic career.

Given the COVID-19 outbreak, what kind of changes do you expect in terms of student enrollment and faculty employment at your institutions?

I think the changes we are currently experiencing due to the COVID-19 outbreak, and that will run through the Summer term as well, are more likely to become our new ‘normal’ in higher education. We were already working in a heavily technology-dependent environment, but with this crisis, the migration to online teaching is going to force colleges to rethink their offer, and faculty, to redefine their role. We are certainly in an unprecedented situation, where a public health crisis has led to an economic collapse. We should expect on the one side, students facing unemployment and its consequences, but on the other side, this crisis could lead to a process of labor reeducation. We don’t know if the economy will be able to ‘pick it up’ were we left it, but what cannot be ignored is that this crisis is opening new opportunities that will require more training, and community colleges will probably be the first option for those who will need ‘educational reengineering’. We will need a shift in the educational process as we know it, with a faculty fully trained to facilitate virtual learning, and students with enough discipline to engage with this model. I think if we look at it from this perspective, there’s a good chance that we will see students returning to school this Fall. Personally, I am quite surprised by how things are looking like in my college; in the past 4 years, I’ve only taught during Summer once, and I just got offered one course for this Summer term (fully online). This situation is definitely changing the way we used to approach human processes, and education is among the most critical tools. We have to be ready for whatever is coming.

Check out Dr. Puerta-Riera’s most recent articles:

APSA’s Career Paths series explores the wide range of career trajectories that political science PhDs can take and provides specific career advice for graduate students entering the job market, as well as other political scientists at all career levels who are looking for new career opportunities. Individuals interested in contributing to the series should email Dr. Tanya Schwarz, APSA’s Director of Teaching & Learning, tschwarz@apsanet.org.