Dolores Durán-Cerda

Dolores Durán-Cerda

Dr. Dolores Durán-Cerda (ΦBK, University of Iowa) is currently Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs at Pima Community College (PCC) in Tucson, Arizona, where she focuses on student success, community engagement and diversity, equity and inclusion. Dr. Durán-Cerda earned her Ph.D. in Latin American literature with an emphasis in poetry, and her M.A. in Hispanic literature, both from the University of Arizona. She was recently elected to the Phi Beta Kappa Senate.


As a child, what profession did you envision for yourself when you grew up?

As a child, I knew I wanted to be in a profession where I was helping people.  My very first memory of what I wanted to be when I grew up was that I wanted to be a fire fighter.  I wanted to help people in crisis.  Then, I wanted to be a pediatrician, a teacher, and by the time I was in high school, I wanted to be a high school principal.  I grew up in Iowa in the 1970’s and 1980’s and there were very few Latinos in the community.  I have a vivid memory from when I was about 8 years old that most likely solidified my wanting to go into the field of education.  It also taught me the importance of creating bridges of understanding.  
My mother had been asked by a social worker from the University of Iowa Children’s Hospital to try to communicate with a 10 year old little girl from Venezuela who needed surgery on her legs so she could walk.  She refused to speak to anyone in any language.  The only emotion she displayed was anger.  They had brought in language interpreters, but she would not speak or listen.  She was frustrated and confused. The doctors could not move forward with the surgery until she would speak to them.  For about a month, my mom and I went to visit Lucía, twice a week.  We chatted with her in Spanish.  We took her my children’s bilingual books, my toys and my puppets.  One day, my mom and I did a fairytale skit with puppets which caused her to smile, then laugh.  That opened the door to her trusting us and starting to communicate with us, the nurses and doctors.  Eventually, with my mom’s mentoring and translating, Lucía communicated with the nurses and doctors.  They were able to do her surgery.  She went back home to Venezuela with her family.  A couple of months later, Lucía and her family came back for a check-up visit with the surgeons.  She and her parents visited our home.  Lucía was walking with crutches.  She was happy, talkative, and grateful for us reaching out to her with our humanity.  It was then I knew I wanted to be an educator

What was the best advice you were ever given and who gave it to you?

My “Tata” (grandpa) was an inspiration to me.  He only had a 3rd grade level of education in Mexico.  He fought in the Mexican Revolution when he was only 15 years old, and was a migrant worker as an adult.  He would repeatedly tell my cousins and me when we were growing up, “They can take away your car, they can take away your house, but they can NEVER take away your education.”  He instilled the importance of getting an education in us from when we were toddlers.  Tata also would tell us, “never forget where you come from.”  These words have always remained with me throughout my academic and professional journeys.  When I was a faculty member, and now as an administrator, I share these quotes with our students, because his message about education is the key to a world of opportunities and to success no matter who you are and where you come from. 

What was the most transformative course from your undergraduate education?

I was fortunate to be a student at the University of Iowa, where the Writers’ Workshop is world-reknowned and its English Department has a stellar reputation.  As a freshman student and with English not having been my first language, I started college feeling insecure about my writing skills in English.  I remember that the first class of my very first day as a college student, I was scared to walk into the Writing 101 classroom. However, this course provided me with the foundational skills and gave me the confidence I needed to be successful in writing throughout my undergraduate journey.  I remember my professor had high exptectations, but the care, encouragement and careful, constructive feedback he provided for all his students were what made me thrive. I continued taking courses in the English Department, and remember being inspired by reading “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” and “The Color Purple.” My professor in that particular course suggested I consider majoring in English.  I was simultaneously taking literature courses in Spanish, and was reading the great works by Gabriel García-Márquez, Carlos Fuentes, and Isabel Allende, among others.  The written text let my mind expand and explore, which allowed my own writing to take flight in both languages.

You currently serve as the Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor at Pima Community College. What drew you to a path in higher education administration? 

I had never planned to become Provost, but I am extremely gratified that I am in this role, and feel that my team and I are making a signicant difference in regard to student success.  As a faculty member, I became President of the Faculty Senate, and met regularly with administrators from various units. I started to realize how complex the running of an institution of higher ed was.  This piqued my interest, and I started to look for administrative opportunities.  I took a position as Acting Senior Assistant to the Provost, which meant that my faculty position was being held for me in case I went back to teaching.  It was a difficult decision, but there was a moment that sealed my decision to leave my faculty position.  The moment was when our College created policy to provide in-state tuition for our DACA students. I was part of that process.  Unfortunately, the policy was overturned later due to the state, but for a period of time, we were able to implement it.  However, the impact this had on our students and community led me to decide to remain in administration.  The mission of community colleges is to provide open access opportunities to all students, which is my mission.

What does your role entail, or what is your favorite part about what you do?

As Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs at Pima Community College, I focus on academic excellence, student success, diversity, equity and inclusion, and community engagement. At this Hispanic-Serving Institution, I oversee all academic programs, including the supervision of academic deans and their departments, PimaOnline, curriculum, assessment, program review, diversity, equity and inclusion, dual enrollment, adult basic education, faculty qualifications, development and hiring, and the Teaching and Learning Center.  I am also the administrative liaison to the institution’s Faculty Senate.
As a Latinx educator and administrator at PCC, a Hispanic-Serving Institution near the U.S.-Mexico Border, my personal mission has always been to seek social justice for all students through academic excellence.  The majority of our students are first-generation, and are underrepresented.  Going through a global pandemic and civil unrest due to racial inequities, higher education is facing issues of access, equity, diversity, and inclusion that had already existed, but are now in the spotlight.  Out of crisis come new opportunities and dialogue.  I thrive in this environment.  I enjoy tackling challenges, removing barriers, and finding solutions to better serve our students so they are able to achieve their goals. It is a time to re-commit to students, faculty, staff, institutional and organizational partnerships, to transform campus climate, curricular innovation and equitable, life-long learning.

You are a newly-elected member of the Phi Beta Kappa Senate and serve as the President of Tucson’s Phi Beta Kappa Association of Greater Tucson, among several other board leadership positions. What has motivated you to stay involved with ΦBK and is there anything about the work of the association that you wish more people knew?

When I was a faculty member at Pima Community College, I was also the Campus Honors Coordinator.  Our College’s partnership with the University of Arizona Honors College led to our students to transferring to the University.  This led me to my interest and eventual joining of the Phi Beta Kappa-Association of Greater Tucson where I have met and work with like-minded individuals who value and promote the humanities and sciences.
The most significant activity of the Phi Beta Kappa Association of Greater Tucson is awarding scholarships to outstanding high school students and University of Arizona undergraduates of diverse backgrounds and who are in financial need. This is the activity of which we all are most proud. All of the contributed money goes directly to the scholarship recipients. The Association awards ten $1,500 scholarships to students at the University of Arizona and five $1,500 scholarships to University High School students.  
In addition, our Association holds lecture series with distinguished scholars from our community around a variety of topics such as “Convents and Nuns in Colonial Mexico,” “The Biology of Music,” “Solving ‘Mysteries’ of Easter Island” and “Unquenchable: America’s Water Crisis and What to Do about It.”  We also organize tours of cultural and historical landmarks in the Tucson community.  We are currently working on creating a book club that will focus on issues of diversity, equity and inclusion.

You received a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Institute on Literature of the Border. The Society helped found the nation’s cultural endowments. Can you tell us about your fellowship experience and why you think the humanities matter at this particular moment?

In the summer of 2002, I participated in the NEH’s Summer Institute called “Hispanic Gendering of the Americas: Beyond Cultural and Geographical Boundaries” at Arizona State University.  It was a five-week national institute for 25 college and university teachers, on women in 20th-century Latin America and Hispanic North America.  We studied the history and literature of women writers of the border such as Gloria Andaldúa, Denise Chávez, Ana Castillo, Lorna Dee Cervantes, and Pat Mora, among others. The Institute highlighted the key issues, themes, and concerns of Mexican-American women from the mid-1800s to the present and the continued struggle for identity as writers on the border, while celebrating their triumphs.
The topic we studied that summer is still relevant today in the borderlands and beyond.  The border in and of itself is its own world, its own space with a blend of cultures, languages, histories and identities, which include the American-Indian, Spanish, Mexican and Mexican-American cultures.  This is what the humanities encapsulate.  The humanities help us understand who we are, our identity, society, culture, and art while preserving the past, learning how to navigate the present, and providing us with the appropriate tools to imagine the future with equity and empathy.

What book(s) are you reading right now? Are you listening to any podcasts or watching any shows? Anything you'd recommend? 

Last March, I participated in the American Council in Education (ACE) Virtual Conference.  In the closing plenary, Dr. Kimberlé Crenshaw spoke.  She is a pioneering scholar and writer on issues such as Black feminist legal theory and race, racism, and the law.  Currently, she is a professor at UCLA School of Law and Columbia Law School.  Dr. Crenshaw is known for her development of “intersectionality” and “critical race theory.”
Her closing plenary session inspired me to read her work, but I wanted it to be a shared learning experience.  With my team in the Office of the Provost, we are all currently reading Dr. Crenshaw’s book, “Seeing Race Again: Countering Colorblindness across Disciplines.”  Each team member is taking turns leading a discussion on their assigned chapter.  Our conversations have been robust, insightful, honest and passionate. 

What is your favorite cultural excursion or experience in your city?

I enjoy visiting the serene DeGrazia Gallery of the Sun, which is nestled in the foothills of the Catalina Mountains in Tucson.  Ettore "Ted" DeGrazia was an Arizonan impressionist, painter, sculptor, composer, actor, director, designer, architect, jeweler, and lithographer. He is mostly known for his colorful images of American-Indian and Mexican-American children of the Southwest.  His gallery sits on 10 acres, including the original home of the artist and his wife, their burial sites, the adobe Mission in the Sun, Gallery in the Sun and the cactus corral.   I like to take my out-of-town friends to visit the DeGrazia Gallery.  We all enjoy learning about his art, as we stroll through the rustic grounds of adobe structures, rock floors, interior murals and open-air roofs.