Creating a global village of faculty at Virginia Tech
November 8, 2022
International Education Week
Joseph Mukuni is a prince among men.
He’s also an actual prince.
It's not your standard line on the CV of an collegiate associate professor in the School of Education, part of the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences. But Mukuni was raised in a royal household in Zambia, a landlocked southern African country that was once part of Rhodesia and Nyasaland.
From a young age, he had the philosophy of Ubuntu, which prizes community, kindness, selflessness, and respect for others, drilled into him. “You are brought up being reminded that you're a potential leader of your people, so you have to have concern for other people,” he said. “You have to love them.”
While Mukuni's brother ended up king of their community of 50,000, Mukuni has gone on to apply Ubuntu to his teaching and research in career and technical education, even writing a book about Ubuntu in intercultural communications.
He is Virginia Tech's only faculty member from Zambia, adding another country to the 80-plus represented by an increasingly global professoriate.
Those numbers are on the rise. With the Office of International Support Services providing visa support, 191 full-time employees come from China, 90 from India, 35 from Iran, 33 from Canada, and 32 from South Korea. But some countries, among them Sweden, Tanzania, Algeria, Azerbaijan, and Morocco, claim just one employee at Virginia Tech.
“World-class faculty members are key to Virginia Tech’s excellence in teaching, discovery, and engagement,” said Don Hempson, associate vice president for international affairs. “In order for the university to continue to be a global destination for talent, we want to make sure we’re doing all we can to attract talented faculty, staff, and researchers from around the world and help foster an environment in which they can thrive.”
To celebrate International Education Week, three faculty members from underrepresented countries — Trinidad and Tobago, Nicaragua, and Zambia — shared how life in their home country influenced their research, their teaching, and their journey to Virginia Tech.
Collegiate associate professor in the School of Education
Mukuni was the director of workforce development in Zambia when he met his first Hokie: Bill Price, now an associate professor emeritus in the School of Education, who was providing training in the country. At Price's encouragement, in 2009 Mukuni joined a cohort of Zambians who enrolled as Ph.D. students at Virginia Tech. After he graduated in 2012, he was invited to join the faculty in career and technical education, where he’s been ever since.
His connections with Zambia have never faltered. Next summer, Mukuni will lead a study abroad program to Zambia, where students will discover Victoria Falls, just a few miles from where Mukuni grew up, and sample foods such as nsima, a thick porridge made of cornmeal.
He hopes that in the process, they’ll experience the Ubuntu that lies at the heart of his teaching philosophy. “We need to affirm the humanness in each other, to respect each other, to work together,” Mukuni said. “The word ‘we’ is more important than the word ‘I.’”
What he misses about Zambia: His family. Mukuni still has children and grandchildren in Zambia, including some he hasn’t met in person yet. “I don't feel homesick because technology has made life much easier for us. I can FaceTime with my grandkids in Zambia. But if I had come here 40 years ago, it would have been hard.”
What helped him find home here: Blacksburg’s friendliness. “I feel here like it's a second home. It's like you are at the United Nations. Just stand at Kroger. You will find people from Asia and from Africa.
Why faculty from underrepresented countries matter: “The world is getting flatter, and we are becoming one global village. So it is a good thing when you can see that global village by just looking at Virginia Tech.”
Assistant professor of finance
The first time Yessenia Tellez visited the United States she was 12, on a trip to see extended family in California. Her English-speaking cousins didn't speak fluent Spanish. “I was super frustrated that I didn't know much about English, just basic words,” recalled Tellez. “That was the biggest motivation for me.”
Back in Nicaragua, Tellez and her sister persuaded their parents to enroll them in weekly English as a second language classes. “We also watched a lot of American TV,” she said, laughing. “MTV, Cartoon Network, that sort of thing.”
Tellez’s family was middle class, but she grew up in a period of hyperinflation and civil war in Nicaragua. “I wanted to pursue a Ph.D. in the United States in economics because I come from a developing country. I wanted to understand why some countries are poor and other ones are rich.”
Scholarships from Fulbright and the Organization of American States took her to Duke University for graduate school, but the cutthroat environment overwhelmed a student from a country of just 6 million people. “When you are changing from your own comfort zone to this country, you freak out. You're like, ‘This is too much, maybe I should go back home.’ The first semester I lost 20 pounds.”
With the encouragement of a professor, she stuck it out and ultimately earned a Ph.D. in finance from Rice University. Now Tellez, who worked in banking back in Nicaragua, teaches classes for the Pamplin College of Business in a subject she knows firsthand: international financial management.
It's not always easy being the lone Nicaraguan at Virginia Tech. “I'm gonna be honest,” she said, “there have been many times in my years living in the U.S. that I’ve thought, ‘This is too hard. I’m just going to find another job, maybe in Latin America.’ But I still have so many things I would like to do here. And I think my impact long term is going to be bigger if I connect with more people here. That doesn't mean that I cannot contribute to my country, but it means that my mission is more global now.”
What she misses about Nicaragua: The warmhearted and humble Nicaraguan people. “We are the second-poorest country in Latin America, but people work very hard, they are very kind, and they want the best for their families.”
What helped her find home here: Joining a local church. “They have become my family here.”
Why faculty from underrepresented countries matter: "In order to have a diverse student body, you have to have also a diverse faculty and stuff. This year, I have an exchange student from Spain. She speaks to me in Spanish because it’s her first time studying finance in the United States and she was having issues with the language. I think that that’s why you need to have diverse faculty and staff members — because then students will feel more comfortable to interact with people with similar backgrounds and similar experiences.”
Assistant professor of arbovirology
Trinidad and Tobago
The fact that Jonathan Auguste’s research revolves around combating mosquito-borne viruses has everything to do with his home country, Trinidad and Tobago.
As tropical as the Amazon, the pair of Caribbean islands 10 kilometers off the coast of Venezuela presented ideal breeding grounds for mosquito-borne diseases such as dengue fever, yellow fever, zika, and chikungunya. “These viruses are household names, so it was easy to say, ‘OK, I want to do this research,’” said Auguste. “And if you're doing research in infectious diseases, you think about the pathogens you know, which in our case was dengue.”
Growing up in Trinidad and Tobago, Auguste played virtually every school sport available (his favorite was cricket) and spent Friday nights hanging out with friends, a practice slangily known as liming. Now he ensures that that same friendliness and team spirit seep into his lab at the Fralin Life Sciences Institute. “I think that culture of always tackling things as a team and always working with people really helps the research lab environment,” said Auguste.
In ethnically diverse Trinidad, known for its carnival, he never experienced racism. That too makes his lab harmonious. “To me, everyone's already accepted.”
What he misses about Trinidad and Tobago: The food, especially what’s called a doubles: fried dough topped with curried chickpeas and doused with pepper and tamarind sauces. “You eat it like a taco,” said Auguste. “It’s the one thing in Trinidad that everyone will miss when they leave Trinidad.”
What helped him find home here: An especially warm and welcoming department and joining the Black Caucus.
Why faculty from underrepresented countries matter: “Just having one faculty member can have a large impact on the country they’re from. We do a lot of work in Trinidad, and if they ever need anything from us, we will provide resources. I think it's going to benefit everybody: the country, the university, the faculty member.”
By Melody Warnick