By Audra Nemirow
In ideal circumstances, Visiting Scholar Marta Tienda (ΦBK, Michigan State University) would have visited Hofstra University in person. But on February 7 and 8, the event prevailed via Zoom. “You have no idea how hard this is talking to the screen by myself, because I really enjoy the engagement with audiences where I can read the room. But I can’t read the room, so I’ll do the best I can,” Tienda said at the beginning of her public lecture, “Is Demography Destiny? Diversity and Its Discontents.”
Even if there were technological barriers, even if it were impossible for her to “read the room,” Tienda was absolutely engaging, combining academic rigor with personal flair. Tienda affirmed the value of integration, as “our nation will thrive only if all students, Pre-K through college, feel a sense of belonging and are provided the best possible opportunities to succeed, including opportunities to foster integration through meaningful interaction across experiences, views, geographies, and social traits.”
The program, presented by Hofstra University’s Phi Beta Kappa chapter and the Hofstra Cultural Center in collaboration with the Hofstra Latin American and Caribbean Studies Program, included a public lecture as well as visits to three classes: a writing studies class, a Latin American and Caribbean studies class, and a sociology class. This visit was open to the whole university community, not just Phi Beta Kappa members, and although Zoom is never as impactful as in-person events, it made the lecture accessible to those who might not be able to otherwise attend.
The preparation for this visit started as early as last spring, when Hofstra Phi Beta Kappa Society chose Tienda from a list of scholars who are part of the Visiting Scholar Program run by the national office of The Phi Beta Kappa Society in Washington, D.C.
Scott Harshbarger, president of the Hofstra chapter of Phi Beta Kappa (Omega of New York), spearheaded Tienda’s visit to Hofstra. “It struck me just how timely the issues were that she was addressing in her proposed lectures,” Harshbarger said. “She ended up lecturing on demography and democracy and diversity and inclusion. This is something that the whole country is wrestling with, but higher education is wrestling with as well.”
But the Visiting Scholar Program is about more than the lecture itself. “One of our primary goals in bringing a visiting scholar to Hofstra is to give students a chance to interact with a distinguished professor from another institution and in ways that are a little more informal than if we just had them come for a lecture,” said Sarah McClesky, secretary and treasurer of the Hofstra ΦBK chapter. “I felt like our visit from Dr. Tienda was particularly successful in terms of reaching across the curriculum . . . she was really able to connect with a number of students in very, very different ways.”
Ronnie Gonzalez, a freshman audio/radio production major, and Karoline Otavalo, a freshman health science major, watched the public lecture during their Putting Latin America and the Caribbean on the Map: Geography, Politics and Literature class. Both of these students felt a strong connection with Tienda’s message and found the ΦBK Visiting Scholar experience enriching.
“I honestly thought it was very thought provoking,” Gonzalez said. “It really got me to think about how polarized and how segregated a lot of different cultures tend to be . . . . [Visiting scholars] tend to touch on topics that you don’t think about in your own time. You’re so caught up in doing your own classes, pushing for what you want that you forget to take the time to broaden your horizons and think about questions that are outside the box.”
Otavalo was inspired by Tienda’s call to action. “Overall, there was a lot of change and involvement students on campus can do,” she said. “I think the world is changing rapidly, and I think it’s up to the students to make the change.” Otavalo also valued the visit in a general sense. “I think it’s important to get lectures from different types of professors and different people and different perspectives,” she said. “As a health science major, I don’t really get these types of lectures.”
Tienda was able to make an even bigger impact outside of the public lecture in the classes she visited individually.
“I was really happy to have Dr. Tienda attend my composition class, which is focused on the NOAH [New Opportunities at Hofstra] scholars, which is a merit scholarship program at Hofstra,” said Lisa Dresner, vice president of the Hofstra ΦBK chapter. “I would say all or almost all of the people in that scholarship program are first generation students. And that has been one of the aims of Phi Beta Kappa recently, to try and broaden its appeal and make sure that everyone knows what it is and why they might want to join if they’re a stellar student who we invite to join, and that knowledge isn’t always obvious to first-generation students.”
In addition to her prepared topic, Dresner asked Tienda to talk about her own experience as a first-generation student. Tienda had some “really powerful things to say to the students, particularly about her own experience as a child of two parents who themselves had not gone past the third grade but who were passionate about education for their children,” Dresner noted. Tienda detailed how her parents had propelled her forward: how she went about finding mentors and sponsors to help propel her on her educational journey, how she learned how to take constructive criticism with a positive attitude, and how she built a network throughout her academic career.
“When I was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa, I didn’t realize the significance,” Tienda said. “When you’re not coming from a family that has higher education or even high school, in my case, you don’t realize the magnitude and the significance of these milestones. I’ve come to realize what a privilege it is, and that’s why I agreed to serve as a Phi Beta Kappa lecturer.”
Audra Nemirow is a senior at Hofstra University, where she is majoring in film studies and production. She was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa there in May 2021. Hofstra University is home to the Omega of New York chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.