Spotlight on Dr. Belkys Torres

After seven years with UCIS, Dr. Belkys Torres is starting a new chapter in her career as Associate Vice Provost for Inclusive Excellence in Education and Teaching Associate Professor of Latinx & Gender Studies. Before heading out on her next adventure, she sat down to reflect on her time as Executive Director of Global Engagement.
Belkys, we’ll miss you here at UCIS, but wish you luck in your new role!

M. McDonald: So, if I can go back to the beginning, what brought you to Pitt and how did you end up in your current role? 
B. Torres: My story is an interesting one. I was recruited to come to Pitt from the University of Miami because the current Vice Chancellor for Global Affairs and I worked together as colleagues at the Center for Latin American studies at the University of Miami. He was hired [at Pitt] and was looking for an Associate Director of International Programs and encouraged me to apply. I was hired to come and join the team in October of 2015.
MM: So, what does a typical day at work look like for you?
BT: I think one of the interesting things about working at UCIS is that there is no such thing as a typical day, especially for someone in my position. There might be days where what I'm doing is meeting with my direct reports and making sure that I'm touching base with them; other days, I am fulfilling a public relations role and giving a presentation for incoming international students. There may be times where I am meeting with public officials or public safety officials on matters that are related to local safety and security, and other times where I'm advising senior leadership on matters that are important to our community, so every day is a mixed bag, and every day is interesting which is what makes it easy for me to come to work. 
MM: What would you say is the accomplishment at Pitt that you’re proudest of?
BT: We’re sitting in what I think is my most proud accomplishment since I've been at Pitt, the Global Hub. It has been a labor of love and creativity and innovation. It is very much a physical result of conversations that I started having with other leaders and students as we were going through a process of engagement to create the first global plan for Pitt back in 2015. One of the things that we did was host a focus group sessions and other engagement opportunities with students across all of our campuses. The question that we were asking students is, “What would it take for Pitt to aspire to become a global university?” and we were hearing from students that Pitt does a really great job of providing opportunities inside and outside the classroom but that there wasn't a way for students to know where to find that information in a way that was reliable and easy. And so, we started working with students on trying to figure out what that place would be, what it would do, and what it would offer, and it became the Global Hub, which is this really vibrant, beautiful academic resource center, student lounge, events space, and opportunity to showcase global and international work that students are doing. It's very much a space that is created for and serves our student population. It is manned by our student ambassadors, who really live and breathe international education because they are earning a certificate or studied abroad or are learning a language, and it's a space that is constantly being utilized by our sixty-plus student groups on campus that have an immigrant, ethnic, or international focus. So, it's a lively space. 
One of the things that we wanted to do is make sure that the Hub was seen as a friendly, interesting, whimsical space where students want to come. Like, we wanted to have a space where students felt at home, and that there was something intriguing and interesting enough that they would want to come see, and so I was really adamant that I wanted some kind of funky furniture or something interesting that you'd want to use. If you walk by the Hub, chances are someone is already sitting in this chair. For the most part I rarely see this chair empty, and so I think it's fulfilling that mission of just providing a fun and whimsical space for our students to come in and hang out.
MM: This next question is related, and you might even have the same answer, but what is the most exciting and challenging project you’ve worked on at UCIS?
BT: I would say that the most challenging [projects] were the ones where we were pushed outside of our limits during the pandemic. We had to think differently about what it meant to bring Pitt to the world when the world shut down, and I learned that this is an institution where the leadership rallies in support of one another and in support of its student populations. 
At the beginning of the pandemic, as early as March 2020, we realized that our incoming international students, especially those coming from China, were not going to be allowed into the United States to start their education, and we were trying to figure out what to do to ensure that their academics weren't interrupted because of it. And so, in two months’ time, we created Pitt on location, which was a program where basically we used our partners and our service providers around the world to bring a Pitt education to those students across China. In doing so, hundreds of students were able to begin their Pitt experience, even if it was not possible for them to travel at the time, and I'm happy to say that two years later, all of those students have been able to come to campus. They're continuing their education, and some of them are about to graduate, and so that for us is a moment of pride because it pushed us outside of our limits.
MM: What is one fun fact that people might not know about you?
BT: I'm a salsa dancer and a singer when I'm not suffering from allergies, and it's been an interesting ride to meld the love of music and arts with the work that I do in in higher ed and academia. I've always been drawn to the humanities, and it's fun to pick up those pieces of yourself and bring them to work in ways that you don't always really see them come together until they do. For example, I have a great time with events and activities that are hosted by the Nationality Rooms because there's so much of the performative aspect of things that we don't get to experience otherwise.
MM: What was your favorite part of working at UCIS? And what's your favorite memory during your 7 years in the office spending so much time at UCIS?
BT: There was one opportunity in particular that was very special because it was personal to me, which was the opportunity to travel to Cuba for the very first time. My parents are from there and my grandparents on both sides were refugees. For personal and political reasons, the opportunity to visit the island was never afforded me until I came to Pitt, and that's because the University of Pittsburgh has a 25 year relationship with the University of Havana, and we offer several study abroad programs for students. 
And so, the opportunity presented itself for Dr. Armony and I to travel to meet the new president of the University of Havana. Their invitation, and spending some time on the island, learning about those programs, seeing where students lived, how they spent their time where they visited, and what experiences they had was incredibly special because it felt like a homecoming, even though I’d never been to the island, simply because the sounds, and the sights, and the language, and the culture was very much what I had grown up in. It was a full circle moment for me.
I also think UCIS is a really special place because of its people, and our people are consummate professionals really dedicated to what they do. But they are also funny people, and so I think a lot of the memories that I'll take with me are fun times together.
UCIS has these summer picnics where we all get together and have a good time, and one that I remember was hosted by the Asian Studies Center in collaboration with the city [of Pittsburgh]. There are these dragon boat races that happen in the park, and we were all invited to attend and to cheer on the team of rowers from UCIS. When I arrived, apparently, they had lost a few rowers. So, without any practice or notice or anything, I was asked to join them, and so I sat on this dragon boat, not understanding how much coordination and how much teamwork it takes for so many people to quite literally row in the same direction in a competition. 
It speaks to the way that UCIS always works in a team environment that is also incredibly fun and interesting. I think the experiences of working at UCIS in service of students, faculty, and staff has taught me a lot about building relationships and building trust with colleagues, not only inside of our organization, but across the institution.
I'm very grateful for the colleagues who have offered their expertise and their advice over the years and I'm grateful for the opportunity to work in an environment where we've been able to build relationships and bridges and continue to work in service of our community. And I'm really hoping to bring that collaborative spirit into my next role at the institution and grateful for the opportunity to grow and to learn so much from my colleagues.
MM: What advice would you share after your time with UCIS?
I can encourage everyone to take risks, even when they're scary, to walk toward a new project and even when the end isn't very clear, to be bold and brave in charting paths where there aren't any, and to be less worried about failing, because that's where the best lessons are learned. And so for me, it's about, you know, taking risks and opportunities and being grateful to those who provide the safety net and the support to take those risks.
Edited for length and clarity