CSUMB’s new president invites people to call her Vanya

Vayna at podium during Day of Welcome

President Vanya Quiñones at Day of Welcome | Photo by Brent Dundore-Arias

August 22, 2022

By Walter Ryce

Early Years and Education 

Vanya Quiñones was born in Arecibo, a small beach town in the north of Puerto Rico. She spent summers there on her grandparents' farm, where she learned much from the communal and familial approach to work. 
"It doesn't matter your level or background, we work together for the good of the farm," she said. "In order to be successful you have to work cohesively, as a team." 
Many of her family are still in Arecibo, but Quiñones spent most of her upbringing with her parents and siblings in San Juan, the island's biggest city as well as its capital. 
She said Puerto Rican culture values family, respect for elders, faith, hard work, and pride. And, typical of Puerto Ricans, she has lineage from Spaniards and Portuguese, Africans, and indigenous Taino people. And that sense of belonging to different heritages fosters a broad solidarity and empathy. 
Her family highly prized education, and Quiñones has sought it out. Because Puerto Rico is part of the United States, the higher education system is similar, except in one respect: it was free or close to free for students. 
She first studied and pursued art, which she described as a method of understanding the world. But she also took science and pre-med classes, following a family tradition of rigorous academic coursework.
During her studies, a science professor recognized her unique perspective and invited her to work in his lab. That accelerated her on a course directed to science. 
"I tell students ‘One single person can change your life, one opportunity can change your future'," she said. "I think the purpose of the university is to expand your horizon, and you should say yes to any opportunities because they move you forward."
For her, that meant earning a bachelor's degree in biology and a master's degree in cell biology, both from the University of Puerto Rico, and then a PhD in neurobiology and physiology from Rutgers University.

Work and Career
She landed what she calls a dream appointment for scientists as a postdoctoral associate at New York's Rockefeller University, a top research university in the world and studied neuroscience at a time when it was still a relatively new field. One issue she perceived was that most of the research was conducted primarily on males, and she wanted to change that.
"I'm very proud to be one of the pioneers of [gender] differences in the brain. There were a handful of people working with female differences and hormonal effects," she said. "Now it's mandatory that you include females in any research on the brain." 
At that point, she had accumulated a wealth of experience navigating the worlds of higher education and deep scientific research. But after a while, she realized it was not a perfect fit for the kind of impact she wanted to make in others' lives. She was eager to help shepherd young people along their own journeys. 

"I was the only minority in the lab. I was one of the few minorities at Rockefeller," she said. "I think education is the number one tool for diversity, equity and inclusion to address social mobility." 

She approached Hunter College of CUNY, a public university in New York City, and persuaded them to bring her on as faculty to expand her efforts in mentoring and offer students research and training opportunities. 
She's also published 70 peer-reviewed papers and about 200 presentations, monographs, and invited talks; she's earned academic and professional honors, increased responsibilities, and funding in the millions.  

Her research group published novel findings, including showing, among other things, that: "Estrogen and progesterone alter drug abuse and pain-induced behavioral and physiological responses.”

"Somebody says something, you ask 'why is that,' and you go into this rabbit hole for 27 years," she explained. 
She was at CUNY's Hunter College for over 20 years, teaching and serving as chair of the Department of Psychology and finally associate provost. In 2018 she went to Pace University, also in New York City, where she became the provost and executive vice president for Academic Affairs, as well as a full professor in the Department of Psychology. 

President of CSUMB
On August 15, 2022, Quiñones began her term as CSUMB's fourth president. She said she was attracted to CSUMB as an institution that is relatively young with lots of potential, and for its devotion to students who might not otherwise have the opportunity to attend college. 
Amid the flurry of activity, she's spoken to faculty, staff, and incoming first-year students at convocation. Her first week was filled with meetings, events, and casual drop-in meet-and-greets to introduce herself to the campus.
At her Welcome Reception on Aug. 17, she spoke in front of an audience of faculty and staff at University Center. She thanked the assembled, saying she was humbled and touched by everyone's receptivity to her. She has made a point of insisting on being called Vanya instead of President Quiñones. 
She said she wants to progress together, with transparency, on enrollment, academic programs, diversity, equity and inclusion, and student success; she wants CSUMB to be a model of higher education as well as a cultural center for the region. 
"I'm looking forward to getting to know you, and I want you to see me as a partner," she said, harkening to the communal spirit of her grandparents' farm. "My aspirations are the same as yours."
She cracked jokes and tossed out quips, saying, "If you see me lost and walking in circles, just point me to [executive assistant] Hayley." 
She said she tries to lead with gratitude - pressing her hands together in the añjali mudrā gesture to reinforce the message. 
Attendees called her address "refreshing," "personable," and "warm." 
Liberal Studies associate professor Ondine Gage said she and other faculty members appreciated her interest in connecting with them and with the university's vision and mission.  
"She's very human, heartfelt," Gage continued. "We need that after the pandemic and Zoom and masks." 
Gus Leonard, the coordinator of the Language Laboratory, said he appreciated her leading with humility and gratitude and her "sharing type of leadership."
Sydney Ontiveros, an administrative support coordinator for the School of Computing and Design, said, "She doesn't seem daunted. She seems driven…to support the students."

Social, Behavioral, and Global Studies professor, Angie Tran, said, "I like the message of spending time with faculty and staff. Hear us, go to our meetings."
Nathaniel Jue, associate professor in Biology and Chemistry, said he was heartened by her talking about student success beyond just graduation numbers, but into the future as alumni and how they succeed after graduation.  
In talking about her leadership style, Quiñones referenced a South African proverb that translates to: "I am because we are."

She elaborated later. 
"It would be pretty lonely if all the ideas come from me," she said. "A stronger movement comes from everybody together than from one single person. My style is team building and community building, trusting and listening to people.

"You cannot be you until you embrace everybody else." 
Outside of education, another passion of hers is to address homelessness through volunteer work and serving on the board of a homeless shelter. 
She likes running, spinning, lifting weights, hiking, and yoga. She describes herself as a soccer fan and has an omnivorous taste in music. 
She wants the campus community and the greater community to get to know her in the coming months, and vice versa, and then to find alignment over shared goals for the years of work ahead.