Colombian doctoral student Paulina Velez hopes to bring change to her home country.
From Universidad CES in Colombia to Texas Tech University, Paulina Velez is doing her part for youth and students by coming to understand the needs of international students.
When Velez came to Texas she knew she would miss the mountains and green hills of Colombia, but she was coming with purpose and drive. She came to Texas Tech as a Fulbright scholar, having earned her bachelor's degree in psychology from Universidad CES, a Colombian university that specializes in health-related programs. While there, she took part in a clinical psychology intervention project working with adolescents with emotional disorders.
The project focused on youth from the Itagui Municipality, an area of Colombia with harsh living conditions where 30 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. Many of these problems stem from several years of guerilla warfare and general violence in the county.
“I really wanted my degree in psychology to help individuals, but as I worked with them I realized many of these problems were a result of their family lives,” Velez said. “I decided in order to be really helpful, they needed a program that was much broader.”
After deciding to find a way to create these programs, Velez realized she couldn't do it in her home country. The problems she wanted to fix may have prevented her from finding a solution. She applied for the Fulbright scholarship, a program designed to help international students travel for better educational opportunities in universities across the world. She was awarded the scholarship and began sending out applications. She was accepted to several, but chose Texas Tech.
“I chose Tech because of the research experience the staff and professors had with the Latino community,” she said.
Velez said her stay with Texas Tech has been a great experience. She was initially afraid of the social challenges her language skills may have presented. After attending Texas Tech's International Teaching Assistant Workshop, a three-week stay on campus run by the OIA, her fears were alleviated.
“While I have been here the international population has been wonderful, but the local community has been even more helpful, providing an open, friendly and welcoming environment.”
Velez originally sought her master's degree in human development but liked Lubbock so much she decided to stay for her doctorate, continuing her work with other students from Colombia. After her original dissertation proposal, which involved working with her original university, Universidad CES, encountered difficulty, she refocused her work to helping other international students. Her current work involves foreign students and their identity negotiations.
“Basically it involves the student's view of who they are, what they want and where they're going, but international students provide an extra barrier in that they must contrast their own cultural values with new ones and then bring those changes with them back home.”
Nancy Bell, her dissertation adviser, said Velez's research will make an important contribution not only to an understanding of the experiences of students from Colombia, but more generally to theory, research and application related to the international student experience.
Understanding how students organize their identities helps Velez understand the minds of the people she hopes to help back home and bring that research and ability to develop programs back with her.
“I hope to graduate in December and go back to Colombia soon after. I hope to get a job in academia but also do outreach work with institutions, doing work that is research informed to help organizations get to the root of the problem rather than just treat the symptoms.”
In the meantime, Velez helps the Office of International Affairs by being a part of an international advisory board which assists the OIA by providing insight into the needs of incoming international students and teachers.
“The OIA has been immensely helpful in my time here,” she said. “Being able to give back to that has been a very rewarding experience for me.”
Even though Velez plans on returning to her home country upon completion of her doctorates she is still proud of her time as a Red Raider.
“It's been a great experience for me. I am going to miss it when I leave for home.”
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