On the Ground Perspectives: Q&A with Professor Alberto Vital

Professor Alberto Vital, National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM)
March 3, 2021

The following interview is part of the European Studies Council and Council on Latin American & Iberian Studies collaborative collection titled “On the Ground Perspectives.” This new series features our international academic collaborators and institutional partners, investigating their research and other institutional priorities during the pandemic. The series aims to surface common challenges and showcase best practices for ongoing collaboration during this unusually challenging time.

The interview below is with Dr. Alberto Vital, Director of the National Autonomous University of Mexico’s (UNAM) Center for Foreign Students. Yale and UNAM have more recently developed strong collaborations through the joint launch of the Latin American Interdisciplinary Gender Network.

1. These are unprecedented times. Could you tell us a bit about what faculty and graduate student researchers at unam are doing to tackle the challenges of the present moment?

At my University, there are several ways in which researchers are examining the pandemic and its consequences for our daily life, economy, and health. In short, diverse fields of social and human sciences are involved in specific and general investigations in addition to work being carried out by the biomedical sciences and physics. I myself have contributed with a book, Lenguaje y literatura en tiempos de pandemia, (translated as “Language and Literature in Times of a Pandemic”), that will soon appear in a new collection of books, Cartas desde la pandemia (“Letters from the pandemic”), sponsored by the Coordinación de Humanidades at UNAM.

2. Are there important lines of research at unam related to covid – 19 that you would like to describe?

Inspired by Dr. Maurice Biriotti’s ideas and leadership, scholars and students from the School of Philosophy and Literature (Facultad de Filosofía y Letras), the National School of Social Work (Escuela Nacional de Trabajo Social), the Teaching Center for Foreign Students (Centro de Enseñanza para Extranjeros), and the Applied Literature Seminar (Seminario de Literatura Aplicada) bring together experiences from the fields of nursing and psychology with the application of techniques drawn from both literary and individual narratives to help solve problems such as obesity and depression. As we know, depression and obesity are considered aggravating factors that increase the risk of morbidity in a pandemic. These practices have been successfully tested in Mexican hospitals. In addition, in its biomedical laboratories, the University is supporting efforts to produce a Mexican vaccine against covid – 19 and its variations.

3. How is the pandemic affecting unam researchers’ ability to do their work?

In many ways our work has been deeply affected by the new circumstances. In the humanities it is vital to visit libraries and archives. Even in times of online access to many archives and collections, direct consultation of books and newspapers remains very important. Direct consultations are the only way of accessing crucial information for philology and historical studies, as well as in other branches of humanities. In life sciences, health sciences, and physical sciences, the access to laboratories has been restricted, and in-person congresses and other types of events have been cancelled or are now being carried out online. In any case, research goes on, adapting to the new global conditions. Many teachers and researchers foresee the emergence and consolidation of a hybrid model of research and communication of results, as well as teaching. Today we must strengthen our distance research and teaching skills, for example by motivating colleagues, collaborators and students to find new ways of data verification, communication, and pedagogy.

4. What are your top priorities at unam as related to engagement or other partnerships with other institutions at this time?

First of all, it is critical to preserve and encourage the general and specific agreements and engagements we have already agreed to with partnering institutions. Secondly, it is crucial to update these agreements and commitments in order to adapt them to the online and hybrid models that have become inevitable and essential in recent months.

For example, for the teaching of Spanish as a foreign language at our University, our priorities are the digitization of teaching materials and increasing the flexibility of the courses and workshops offered. We created the cepe 365 model (cepe is “Centro de Enseñanza para Extranjeros,” Teaching Center for Foreign Students) to offer tailor-made courses suitable for time zones across the planet. We are also seeking to establish contacts with higher education institutions through our embassies and through unam’s offices abroad (14 offices, 6 of them in the United States of America). The motto of the cepe 365 model is “Todo el día, todo el año, todo el mundo” (“All day, all year, all across the world”).

It has also been a top priority to investigate how to improve our online and distance-learning offerings, in addition to finding ways to certify Spanish proficiency when the test taker is at home.

5. What benefits or opportunities do you see in your experiences collaborating with other institutions at this time?

Sharing experiences and facing the challenges of the pandemic together is proving to be extremely important for higher education institutions. In my above-mentioned book, I conclude that today more than ever we are in the era of collaboration because humanity cannot continue to compete relentlessly according to a model of savage capitalism that disregards crises such as the climate emergency, violence (especially gender violence), and now also the pandemic. Universities can become a model of cooperation for all other institutions.