The Diversity and Inclusion Task Force presents Excellence in STEM, with Dr. Manuel A. Pérez Quiñones is a Professor of Software and Information Systems at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and an NSF Expert for the CISE division.
Though he is not a first-generation college student, Dr. Quiñones shares his experience holding space for immigrant and first-generation students, and advocating for them. Read on to learn more about Dr. Quiñones and his advice from years in academia.
Why Did You Choose Your Current Technical Field?
Dr. Pérez Quiñones I was always good at math, but in high school, I was never told what engineering was really about. Instead, I went to college, majoring in accounting, and then planned to attend law school until I found computer science. I loved problem-solving, the application of math, the logic puzzle aspect of writing programs, and the creativity required to find solutions to particular problems.
Ever since graduate school almost 30 years ago, my main area of research has been Human-Computer Interaction. I was fascinated with interactive graphical tools, usability, and making systems easier to use. In the last five years, I have devoted more efforts to Broadening Participation in Computing.
What does a typical day or week look like for you as a professor
Dr. Pérez Quiñones My responsibilities as a professor involve teaching, research, and service. On any given day, I do a little bit of all three. For teaching, this often means preparing my lectures, preparing assignments, and of course, teaching in the classroom. I do less grading than other professors because I am a strong believer in auto-graders, so I use them as much as I can. I also need those tools due to the large enrollment in computer science classrooms.
On any given day, I usually have one or two meetings on campus for committees or initiatives. Those typically involve discussing issues related to curriculum or student support and other related topics. I have numerous professional service collaborations with people off-campus. Those tend to be online meetings, again, discussing issues for the advancement of a particular project.
Finally, I am still active in research. That involves reading papers, working with graduate students, conducting studies, writing reports, etc. Most of my research tends to be interdisciplinary, so I often spend time reading literature from other fields, such as getting up to speed on linguistics, human memory, attention, and interruptions. Lately, I have been reading about measurements of population segregation as a way to measure diversity and literature on translanguaging and the ideology of monolingualism. Research is always refreshing and gives me the opportunity to study something new.
The big challenge in my work is that each of these can be in completely different areas from each other with different people. It really requires a significant effort to be organized and to keep track of different pieces of information.
What’s been your greatest professional challenge as a member of the Latino community, and how did you overcome it?
Dr. Pérez Quiñones The greatest challenge comes from being the only Latinx in just about all groups in which I participate. This often puts pressure on me because I am representing a large group of people that are not in the room. But there is also some pressure from others expecting that I know everything about Latinx people and culture.
I am Puerto Rican, so I never technically immigrated to the US, but I grew up in Puerto Rico, which has quite a different culture than the mainstream US. I am also the son of parents with advanced degrees, so I am not a first-generation college student. But I feel that sometimes I have to represent the Latinx point of view of immigrants and first-generation students because if I don’t do it, there is nobody else in the room advocating for them. People also expect me to know what the day-to-day life of an immigrant from Central America, to pick an example, is like. This is a serious challenge because it is not something I know from first hand experience. However, I am aware that I might have more common experiences with that community than the average professor in my circles because of the low representation of Latinx in STEM.
This has been a challenge since I was in graduate school and unfortunately it continues today. The difference is that as I have gained more experience and have been more established within my professional community, I’ve been able to be more vocal about these issues. I also think today there is more awareness of group dynamics than 20 years ago.
What is one piece of advice you can give Latino students and/or early career professionals?
Dr. Pérez Quiñones Always keep an eye on the future. On any given day, you might get involved in work that seems pointless. But if that experience will prepare you for something bigger in the future, learn from it and move forward. And never forget where you come from.
What would you consider are Hispanic traits or behaviors instilled by your family that have made you successful?
Dr. Pérez Quiñones I think hard work is a trait of Hispanic culture. We don’t get credit for that, I think we often face a stereotype that we are lazy. Nothing can be further from the truth, at least in my experience.
My parents always instilled in us the importance of working hard. My father was in the ROTC in the late 50s/early 60s. He experienced firsthand segregation and discrimination in the US that he had not seen in Puerto Rico. Sure, racism existed (and still does) in Puerto Rico, but not to the level of having separate lines to get food, separate hotels, etc. He came home and conveyed to us a deep commitment to equity. My mom, as a college professor, understood the challenges of being a role model, of being in front of the classroom, imparting not just textbook knowledge but also standards of ethical behavior. In her case, as a female professor, I think she always understood the additional burden placed on her. I learned from my parents and many others in my family that moving ahead requires hard work.
The other traits that I find in common with other Latinx professionals is that we never forget our roots, our love for family, being kind to others, and always being proud of our heritage and culture.
What are things that you or your university/company do to attract Hispanic students/applicants? What do you recommend they do more of?
Dr. Pérez Quiñones Easy, learn more about us. While there are a lot of things in common across all Hispanic communities (and Latin American countries), we also have a lot of differences. We have multiple languages, races, ethnicities, religions, cultural heritages, and a varied and complicated political history with the US. I think universities need to understand these complexities and not assume that because we are Hispanics we all like spicy food and dance salsa. I often get annoyed at the news media when they talk about the “Latino vote” as if all of us somehow were of just one mind.
Understanding the diversity within the Hispanic/Latinx communities is essential to realize so that we are not a monolithic group. That understanding is a requirement to create an inclusive climate on campus, and one that would make us all feel welcome.
What do you miss from your country of origin?
Dr. Pérez Quiñones The warmth of the Puerto Rican people. There is nothing like it—the love and affection for others, the honest concern about all of us doing better. Since Hurricane Maria and the travel restrictions imposed by COVID, I have not been able to go to the island as often as I would like. I miss las caras lindas of the people of Puerto Rico.
About Dr. Manuel A. Pérez Quiñones:
Dr. Manuel A. Pérez Quiñones is a Professor of Software and Information Systems at UNC at Charlotte and an NSF Expert for the CISE division. His research interests include human-computer interaction, CS education, and diversity issues in computing. He has published over 100 refereed articles and received an NSF CAREER award (many years ago). Before joining UNCC, he worked at Virginia Tech, University of Puerto Rico-Mayaguez, Visiting Professor at US Naval Academy, Visiting Professor at Northeastern, and as a Computer Scientist at the Naval Research Lab. He currently serves on the Committee on Women in Science, Engineering and Medicine at the National Academies and the Steering Committee for BPCNet.org. He also helped organize several international conferences (e.g., SIGCSE Technical Symposium, Tapia Conference). His efforts to diversify computing have been recognized with an ACM Distinguished Member status (2019); the CRA A. Nico Habermann award (2018); and the Richard A. Tapia Achievement Award (2017). He is originally from San Juan, Puerto Rico.