Dean of the College of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences Milagros Peña looks back at her first year
By Lilledeshan Bose
A year ago, sociologist and ethnic and women’s studies scholar Milagros Peña came onboard as UCR’s dean of the UCR College of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences (CHASS).
Peña, whose research focuses on Latina activism in Mexico and the United States, said she was drawn to UCR because of its mission, the quality of its faculty, and student diversity. Like many UCR students, she was also first in her family to achieve a high school diploma and move on to college.
It was a moment at the HUB that sealed the deal for her. At the time, Peña was visiting the campus and was still the associate dean at the University of Florida’s College of Liberal Arts and Science.
“I had some time between interviews, so I went over to the HUB to grab a snack. I sat down and started looking around. I watched students from so many different backgrounds sitting together, talking about their work, studying together, or eating together.
“The space that this university has given to a diverse student population, and the way that they engaged each other in that moment really crystallized for me. When I got home, I told my husband, ‘I really feel like I have found the institution that I would leave the University of Florida for. If I don’t get a follow-up phone call, I will be very disappointed.’”
Peña did get a follow-up call — and the job. Although she had spent most of her life in the East Coast (she grew up in New York City, earned a Ph.D. and master’s degree in sociology from the State University of New York at Stony Brook, a master of divinity degree from Union Theological Seminary, and a bachelor’s degree from Iona College), she previously spent time in California when her husband did his postdoc at the Carnegie Observatories in Pasadena, and was happy to return.
In her first few months, she made herself available to talk to faculty and staff — not just in formal meetings, but over lunch and coffee too. Peña says her first year was all about having colleagues sense how excited she was to be at UCR, building on the strengths of the college, and supporting collaborations across disciplines, colleges, and schools. “There’s a lot that’s going on the campus that’s just exciting to be a part of,” she says. It helps, she says, that she has a positive disposition. “A colleague commented that they see me always smiling. I try to figure out how to best work with people even in difficult situations. As long as I’m open to learn and engage in the different perspectives, I’ll continue to experience this position in a very positive way.”
Moving forward, Peña’s immediate plan is to focus on CHASS’s identity, and how to translate that in terms of programming within its departments. “We’re thinking of the college in terms of this larger intellectual enterprise,” she said. “We can leverage our strengths as an intellectual community when we work across disciplines, which is attractive to people who potentially want to come here.”
Peña knows that UCR’s growth will impact CHASS, so she’s very involved in development work. This year, Peña and her husband, Frederick Hamann (a professor in physics and astronomy at UCR), started an international experience fund called CHASS: At Home and in the World. “The international experience for me as a first-generation college-goer was the beginning of my awakening as an intellectual and a scholar.”