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Students from Harvard and UPR at Río Piedras with Vanessa Uriarte, executive director of 'Amigxs del M.A.R.'
Students from Harvard and UPR at Río Piedras with Vanessa Uriarte (floral shirt), executive director of 'Amigxs del M.A.R.' Photo: Courtesy

Puerto Rico as an academic center

Learn about the 'Puerto Rico Winter Institute,' a two-week program that began as part of a collaboration between Harvard and the University of Puerto Rico.

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The 'Harvard Puerto Rico Winter Institute' is a two-week seminar created with the mission of bringing together the best talent from Harvard University and the University of Puerto Rico (UPR). But above all, this interdisciplinary project has positioned the island as an academic and intellectual center for Spanish-speaking students.  

The first phase of this academic alliance between Harvard and UPR at Río Piedras began in 2004; with a temporary pause for 2010. It was not until 2017 that UPR professor Dr. Pedro Reina Pérez was entrusted with the task of directing the second phase of the project. Since then, a total of six editions have been held to shed light on the current condition of Puerto Rico and produce new works of study that elevate the conversation in the academy. 

This year, the seminar focused on the challenges facing Puerto Rico's agriculture and fishing industry due to climate change and its impact on food sovereignty, sustainability, and culture. The program was entitled 'Entre la tierra y el mar: Agricultura, pesca y cambio climático' and involved 11 students from different disciplines and countries, including one Chilean, one Chicana, two Brazilians, and seven Puerto Ricans. 

The students began their academic adventure in the west of the island on January 2, 2023. They visited the municipalities of Aguadilla, Cabo Rojo, and Vega Baja to study the management of beach resources and hear the experiences of fishermen and residents about the effects of climate change. Some of the activities consisted of learning from professor and geologist Maritza Barreto about the state of the beaches post-Hurricane Maria and visiting the coastal zone of the town of Loíza where community leader Modesta Irizarry offered her educational session on environmental racism. The seminar ended on January 17 and the students had the opportunity to visit other projects around the island with experts and professors.

courtesy

An enriching seminar

One of the features of the program is its residential approach. Participants live the two weeks together, achieving a collaborative and interdisciplinary learning experience with students from different backgrounds and cultures. For Professor Reina Pérez, the group dynamics that were cultivated this year were an experience of unparalleled rapport.

"I must confess that for me, what I loved most about the program was the coexistence part," said Alejandra Torres, one of the seminar participants and a law student at the UPR. "When the conversations combined that interdisciplinarity, it was a bit magical. We could always identify those problems we have in Puerto Rico and how they are replicated in similar ways in their respective countries," she continued. 

Torres also highlighted the immersion opportunity offered by the seminar. For her, the 'Harvard Puerto Rico Winter Institute' encouraged students to get out of the "bubble" of academia to visit communities and witness the effects of climate change for themselves. 

"Whenever we talk about issues such as climate change, we always look outside as if it doesn't affect us," Alejandra said of the opportunity to learn about the work being done to preserve the island's natural resources. 

At the end of the program, each student must present a final research or creative work on the topics of the course. In this edition, the students worked on creative pieces that included a mini-documentary, a rap song, and essays on what they learned in the seminar. 

In Alejandra's case, the student will deliver as final work an educational curriculum aimed at elementary school students. 

"I am a gifted student and I always had an aversion to the school education system. I was a bit rebellious in academic subjects because I never found my place. In this seminar there was precisely a space for everyone to learn," Torres confessed. 

For Harvard students who have participated in the program previously, this immersive seminar has been an open invitation to return to the island to continue their research work. This is what a design student did a short time ago, who chose to return to Puerto Rico to work as a Peruvian student in ENLACE Caño Martín Peña, a project that she learned about thanks to the course.

A similar experience was had by Chilean Viviana Urra, a participant in the 'Harvard Puerto Rico Winter Institute' this January 2023, who shared her desire to work in Puerto Rico once she graduates from Harvard. 

"This project always makes me very excited and curious because it is a great learning experience for me and the students have also experienced it on a similar level," Reina Pérez added to AL DÍA. 

A fee-free experience

The 'Harvard Puerto Rico Winter Institute' is supported by the Wilbur Marvin Foundation, making the program a fee-free experience for admitted students. Participants also receive an additional stipend at the beginning of the program. 

Recently, The Mellon Foundation approved two grants for the Río Piedras campus of the UPR for a total of $2,948,000.00. The first one is for $1,948,000.00, managed by Professor Reina Pérez. This grant will support the institution through the development of student scholarships, the creation of a seed fund for student completion projects of great promise, initiate a travel support fund for professors and students, and partial support for the 'Harvard Puerto Rico Winter Institute'. 

The second grant is for $1,000,000.00. With this money, the institution will develop the program 'Puerto Rico Afro: Tiznando el país-Visualidades y Representaciones,' a transdisciplinary research and education project with a decolonial view from the perspective of Afro-descendants. 

The 'Harvard Puerto Rico Winter Institute' is a collaborative program with the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies at Harvard University. In Puerto Rico, the project partners are the Master's Program in Cultural Management and Administration of the School of Humanities and the School of Law of the UPR.

About Pedro Reina Pérez

Pedro Reina Pérez is an award-winning historian and journalist specializing in contemporary Spanish Caribbean history, and director of the 'Harvard Puerto Rico Winter Institute'.

Pedro Reina
Professor Pedro Reina Pérez.

He began his career as a professor at the UPR in Río Piedras 25 years ago, where he excelled as director of the Interdisciplinary Studies Program and professor of the Master's Program in Cultural Management and Administration at the UPR. 

Despite his passion for education, Pedro was not academically trained as an educator. According to Reina Pérez, he began his higher education as a student of Aeronautical Sciences. He then switched to the Humanities, where he managed to complete a bachelor's degree in Latin American Studies at New York University. Upon graduation, the first job he had was as a teacher at Santa Monica Academy in Santurce, the same school where Reina Pérez finished high school.

Sometime later, he earned a doctorate in history from the Center for Advanced Studies of Puerto Rico and the Caribbean. After completing his degree, he was recruited by the UPR to begin his journey as a professor, a position he has held since 1998. 

"I don't teach except because I like it. And because eventually, I became a good teacher," concluded Reina Pérez.

For more information about the 'Harvard Puerto Rico Winter Institute', click here.

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