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A Penn Triumvirate: Mother and Two Sons
As Penn legacies go, this one is certainly impressive: mother and two sons. It starts with Dr. Elaine Torres-Meléndez DMD ’82, thought to be the first Latina to graduate from the Dental School. And continues with Gerardo Javier (G.J.) Meléndez Torres NU ’11, W ’11, GNU ’14, who was one of two students honored by the Wharton School with the Dean’s Award for Excellence this past May. And if that isn’t enough, the youngest son of the family, Juan Carlos Meléndez Torres C ’13, W ’13, is a rising junior. While the three have drastically different interests, personalities, and even tastes in music, they share a strong bond and love for the University that has shaped their lives.
Elaine and her husband Gerardo J. Meléndez, a scientist who works for the U.S. Army, are originally from Río Piedras, Puerto Rico, but currently reside in Princeton, New Jersey. Elaine is a prosthodontist with her own practice in Yardley, PA. A former board member of Princeton Day School, she currently sits on the board of McCarter Theatre Center, a community theater.
G.J. just graduated from both Wharton with a BS in Economics (Health Care Management & Policy) and the School of Nursing with a BS in Nursing, capping an extraordinary undergraduate tenure. In 2009, G.J. was among 60 students awarded the Harry S. Truman Scholarship. Its rigorous selection process seeks students who have a strong record of public service and requires them to write a policy proposal that addresses an important societal issue as a part of the application process. In 2010, he was one of two Penn students and 31 nationwide to receive the prestigious Marshall Scholarship, which allows recipients to pursue graduate degrees in the United Kingdom. G.J. will attend Oxford University this fall, where he will study for a Master of Philosophy in Evidence-Based Social Intervention. After that, G.J. will continue towards a MSN in Advanced Practice and Psychiatric/ Mental Health Nursing back here at Penn.
Meanwhile, Juan Carlos is enrolled in the prestigious Huntsman Program in International Studies & Business, Penn’s interdisciplinary course of study that integrates business education, advanced language training and a liberal arts education. As part of this dual-degree program, he is studying management in Wharton while focusing on African and African diaspora studies in the College of Arts and Sciences. He spent the past semester in Senegal exploring the history and current state of protection of intellectual property rights (IPRs) in creative industries in West Africa.
Elaine and G.J. recently took a breather from their busy schedules to sit for lunch with Cecilia Ramírez C ’05, SP2 ’10, Assistant Director of Multicultural Outreach at Alumni Relations and member of the ALA Board of Directors, a stimulating conversation that linked one family and 29 years of Penn history.
So, we have to begin with the obvious question; why Penn?
ELAINE: I applied to Penn because it was the best. Coming here was the happiest time of my life. We had a very cohesive class and people from all over. I was the youngest in my class and I always felt protected.
G.J.: One of the major reasons I came to Penn is because the only thing I heard from my mom was that it was a very positive and affirming experience. It was also a major change from where I went to high school. One of the challenges was that it was not a diverse place. This is something I shared when I was interviewing: I didn’t want to go to a school anymore where I was asked if I ate quesadillas for breakfast. By and large, I think one of the most rewarding parts about coming here was having intercultural encounters with a lot of people.
ELAINE: I think that he has the same love that I have for Penn, but for different reasons. The first thing that he told me when he got here was that he was like at a bat out of hell: he did the Africana Studies Summer Institute, sang with the gospel choir, he did everything! He even asked me to dress in my Sunday best to go to a Baptist church service for the first time; I even wore a hat! I’m proud that he has had so many explorations and experiences. You only live once.
Elaine, tell us about the Penn that you remember.
ELAINE: Well, I lived right on 36th and Chestnut all four years; I loved it! I always felt safe. I actually lived across the street from my son Juan Carlos’ bedroom window! Out of a class of 163, there were only 24 women and 2 Latinas; the other Latina dropped out after her first year. I was also a part of a Jewish fraternity, Alpha Omega. I served as the alumni liaison and was in charge of Big Brother program. It was great and I was not just a groupie; there were other women there. I was never a sorority person. This fraternity was more of an intellectual thing. I remember how great it was eating bagels and lox on Sunday mornings.
Sounds like you had a ball at Penn. Were there ever any difficult times? Being Latina maybe?
ELAINE: You know what? The fact that I am Hispanic never was an issue at Penn. At other schools, between racial insults and chauvinism, I had my fair share of discrimination. Never at Penn; I had a great time here. I think the fact that I am a woman in a field that has always been dominated by men, especially in the 80’s, has been more of an issue for me than my ethnicity. I knew Penn was different when I came to visit and someone took time out of their day to give me a tour of the school.
How important was it for G.J. and Juan Carlos to go to Penn? Was there any brainwashing involved?
ELAINE: Yes! I started the brainwashing when they were two! (Smiles) I would put them in the station wagon and I would say to my mom, "Let’s go down to Philly!" We would drive to campus and I would get them something Penn-related from the bookstore that they could hold. I would then park the stroller right in front of Steinberg-Dietrich Hall; Huntsman Hall was not built yet. Benjamin Franklin was not even around the corner on the bench yet! So, I would sit there with them and say, "Wow. The Wharton School, what a great place! Isn’t that a great place? This is where I want you to go to school. Mommy was so happy here and I want you to be just as happy as mommy was. Mommy was at the Dental School, but Mommy thinks that the Wharton school would be a better fit." As they got older, I never told them to apply to Penn. I didn’t want them to think I was influencing their decision.
G.J.:(Laughs) I don’t think that I appreciated the brilliance of this strategy until after I knew that I was coming to Penn. I knew that something was up the day I accepted Penn’s offer; she produced a set of Penn glassware that I had never seen before. I guess that she had been hiding them for a long time.
How important has family and culture been to you?
ELAINE: Family is the most important thing we have. We are thrilled that our boys have grown up to be great men. They have the qualities that allow you to live a happy and successful life; education alone cannot do it. They don’t look down on anyone, they are giving and they are the best of friends. We are humble and we have tried to teach them that. Juan Carlos is a bass, G.J. is a tenor; Juan Carlos plays the clarinet, G.J. plays the sax; Juan Carlos loves salsa, G.J. loves merengue. However, even though they are as different as night and day, their values are the same. Our culture is very important to us. Thankfully, my mother was around when they were growing up so they didn’t have to go to daycare. We say that they were raised “authentically Puerto-Rican!” They learned to pray and read in Spanish, the Spanish we spoke 36 years ago, so it’s in a time warp. Their grandmother taught them all of the traditional folklore stories; all of the stories that you only knew if you grew up in Puerto Rico.
G.J., what are the next steps? Do you plan to keep this Penn tradition alive?
G.J.: My long-term goal is to do policy work, research health disparities and conduct clinical practice in underserved communities. This is very important to me. At Penn, my dream is to have one of those bricks on the 38th St. Bridge with the names with every one in the family! My brother loves it here; my mom had a very affirming experience here, and for me, I found Penn to be a comfortable place where I could be seen for who I am and not for any other reasons. We have all been very happy at Penn for different reasons and that is very important to us all. We will always remain connected.
ALA Board Member on the Move
Q&A With an ALA Board Member, Nicolas Rodriquez C’04
Nicolas Rodriquez graduated from the College in 2004 with a B.A. in Political Science and a Comparative Concentration. Originally from Sanger, CA, he currently lives and works in Los Angeles. Nico serves as the Field Deputy and Aide to Congressman Xavier Becerra (CA-31,) the Vice Chair of the House Democratic Caucus. His work focuses on Immigration, Education, Energy, Social Security and Telecom policy.
As an Ivy League graduate in 2004, what compelled you to work in the public sector, specifically for a congressman?
Interest in public service came to me before I attended Penn. Growing up the son of two teachers, I have always been interested in working with community members on important policy matters focused on a local level. My interest however was really peaked to work in a large urban center with immigrant and minority communities by courses I took on migration, immigration and urban studies I took at Penn. My positions with Congressman Xavier Becerra gave me the change to tackle issues such as immigration, social service access, Pre-K thru 12 educational access and clean, affordable energy access directly with 600,000 residents of the most dense areas of Los Angeles. I couldn't have asked for a better experience.
You have served during an interesting, volatile and historic period of American politics. What are your lasting memories? And biggest achievement?
Having served a member of Congress during two presidencies, both in the minority and the majority, during two wars and during the worst economic crisis in 60 years, interesting is one way to put it. The lasting memories for me will be working with community members in the neighborhoods I covered, the relationships I developed and the partnerships I got a chance to build working on a couple of key policy issues. I think working on immigration reform and the DREAM Act definitely stand out in terms of working to make sure that local residents had a say in the movement of a piece of legisilation, albeit one that didn't get to the President's desk. While we didn't make it in December, immigration reform will become a reality, its only a matter of time. Working on contentious issues like Social Security and the energy bill as well stand out as these two issues create a lot of division along partisan lines. But working with constituents stands out the most.
As a frontline witness to the growing size and influence of the Hispanic population, both in Southern California and nationally, what has surprised you the most? And what is the most pressing challenge Latinos face today?
Though I work in an area with the largest urban Latino population of any place nationally, the issue that stands out is the lack of civic engagement on the part of Latinos. Too many people are citizens and don't vote. Too many are legal permanent residents who don't apply for citizenship. We have to do a better job to get people involved in the elective process, educate them about how key issues affecting them are addressed in Congress and get them involved in deciding what our leaders should be doing. The sleeping giant should not get caught napping.
You are starting the Masters program in Public Administration at Columbia this fall. Why did you decide to return to school? Do you have advice for recent undergraduates who are considering doing the same?
The thing I learned from undergraduate work and from my professional life is the more you learn the more you need to concentrate and build some skill sets. I neglected that a bit in undergrad and I wanted to go back to school to get a better grasp of one or two key issues I would like to work on in the future. Graduate school gives me the chance to do that. If there is one thing I would recommend to undergrads, don't rush graduate school, it will be there for you, get some experience in the workplace then go back to school when it feels right.
You have been back to campus several times since graduation. How has Penn changed in seven years?
The university has grown quite a bit, the presence of Latinos has as well and that is a good thing. The key thing for students, staff, faculty and alumni have to figure out is how we can better capitalize on the growing base we have to communicate and work together. Penn has a long way to go to better serve Latinos. It's going in the right direction and its up to us to work to make sure that the direction stays positive.
An anonymous donor has given $15 million to the renovation of the ARCH Building, which houses La Casa Latina and the other undergraduate cultural centers. What advice would you give the architect?
The cultural centers like La Casa exist at the heart of the ARCH building, both literally and figuratively. The first thing you notice is the smell of the food coming from the centers, the students meeting on the couches out front and the warm that the staff and students bring to you when you walk in. I challenge anyone to think of a more inviting place then the centers. The challenge for the architect is how can they balance the need to preserve and upgrade the building while making sure that this warmth, this inviting and engaging spirit is not lost, but enhanced to maintain the centers as what they are, the keystones of the ARCH building at the heart of campus.
The Artistic Penn Path: Bob Rivera GFA '72
Bob Rivera GFA '72 is a Latino of Puerto Rican heritage, a New Yorker and an artist, not necessarily in that order. After getting his Masters in Fine Arts, he worked in Philadelphia for 13 years before returning to the Big Apple. He likes bright colors, steel beams and murals, combining materials big and small, as he says, "to create colorful and spirited expressions of ironies and contradictions that exist in life and nature." We asked six questions, and in a case of life imitating art, got six colorful and spirited answers.
What inspired a New York Latino to get a Masters in Fine Arts from the School of Design in 1972?
While I was at Cooper Union (New York), I wanted to be able to teach art and at the college level you need a Masters Degree. I happen to meet Robert Engman, the co-chairman of the Fine Arts Department at Penn, on a weekend art symposium where I showed him slides of my work. He asked me to apply and the rest is history.
How do you define your work? And does your work define you?
I create small and large sculptures that are colorful, abstract, sometimes symbolic, and combine a variety of materials. Frequently they become three-dimensional collages. [See pictures.]
Welcome, 1997-05, 78x60x54 inches,
mixed media, Collection of the Artist
Talk about the creative process: Do you sketch, draw and generally think out your projects first? Or do you follow your impulses and start painting or sculpturing before deciding on the nature of the piece?
I do all those things, although not for every piece. Often it's a process of working with the material because I've thought of something. Then, during that process, the material will "tell" me what to do next or I'll make some sketches or even do a comprehensive drawing of what the work will look like.
Is there such thing as "Latino art" in the United States? Or are there many Latino artists who express themselves in a variety of mediums and ways?
I believe that there is, in as much as there's art that expresses and deals with a Latino consciousness. However, artists who are born and raised in the United States create art that may have an American or universal sensibility. They're also aware and versed in the myriad art forms styles and movements that have been developed and popularized in this country. So, yes, there are many artists of Latino heritage who express themselves in a variety of ways and mediums. And I'm not just talking about visual artists.
What advice do you give aspiring artists?
Be tenacious about following your dream so as to not be easily discouraged. Also, listen and learn from what others before you have done or been through. I know that seems old, but everyone has to find their own way because this is not yet such an artist-friendly society.
Winter Cactus, 2010, 11X15X6 inches,
mixed media, Collection of the Artist
Why does Penn remain important to you after all these years?
My experience there had a big influence on me and was also a formative impetus on my life and career. The positive attitudes I remember were important for my growth as an artist and maturing human being. It was also at Penn that I learned about working with the surrounding community while I taught graffiti artists about the other bigger art world.
About the Artist: Rivera has regularly exhibited in group shows and has had solo exhibitions in New York City, Philadelphia and Washington, DC. His reviews have appeared in The New York Times and New York Daily News. He was an artist-in-residence at the Studio Museum in Harlem and was invited to participate in the 25th Anniversary Exhibition at El Museo del Barrio in New York City and the 30-year retrospective of the Painted Bride Art Center in Philadelphia.
About his work, Bob says, "My artworks are a continuing development to create colorful and spirited expressions of ironies and contradictions which exist in life and nature. In this process I strive to maintain a simultaneous harmony and tension within the pieces using a combination of materials."