Growing Number of University of Puerto Rico Scholars Pursuing PhDs at Iowa

by College of Education | May 03, 2013

Leslie SantosWhen Leslie Santos was working on her master’s degree in rehabilitation counseling at the University of Puerto Rico, many of the articles and books she read were written by University of Iowa professors Dennis R. Maki and Vilia Tarvydas.

“They are the top in the field of rehabilitation counseling,” Santos says.

So when she had an opportunity to move to Iowa to pursue her doctorate, she couldn’t pass up the opportunity to study under Maki and Tarvydas.

Santos is among the latest in a string of scholars who have come to the University of Iowa from the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) since the mid-1990s to study in the UI College of Education’s Rehabilitation Counselor Education Program, which is the nation’s number two-ranked program according to U.S. News & World Report.

The two schools enjoy an informal cooperative arrangement. Promising UPR master’s students earn their doctorates at the UI with the intention of returning to the UPR and joining the faculty there. UPR does not offer a Ph.D. in rehabilitation counseling.

Marilyn Mendoza-Lugo, former director of the UPR’s Rehabilitation Counseling Program, was the first from her university to study at the UI. Robinson Vazquez-Ramos, research specialist on the UPR faculty, earned his Ph.D. at the UI in 2002.

Noel Estrada-Hernandez earned his UI Ph.D. in 2004 and is now an associate professor on the UI faculty. Lesley Irizarry earned her Ph.D. in 2010 and is now on the UPR faculty. Current students are Santos and Ruth Mercado-Cruz. Another student is expected to begin at the UI next spring.

The informal arrangement has also led to educational seminars and workshops. Tarvydas, who will begin a three-year term as department executive officer for the UI’s Rehabilitation and Counselor Education Department in July, recently traveled to Puerto Rico to lead a workshop on best practices in rehabilitation counseling and a seminar on ethics standards and ethical decision making. The workshop drew counselors from across the island and Tarvydas says she hopes the partnership will lead to important research and breakthroughs in rehabilitation counseling in Puerto Rico with UI-trained faculty conducting studies specific to their island.

“Almost all of the research that’s being conducted at this point has been using subjects or respondents from the mainland,” Tarvydas says. “We don’t know what we don’t know until we do more research.”

Estrada-Hernandez says that the partnership between the schools has led to meaningful cultural exchange as well. Moving from the northeastern Caribbean to middle-America is a big shift and causes reflection on the importance of self-growth and taking advantages of great opportunities he says.

“Living in Iowa for the extended period of time it takes to do a Ph.D., especially when it’s the first time you are away from Puerto Rico, brings enrichment to your life,” he says. “You learn about other people’s cultures, passions, and traditions. It’s been a great experience.”

Estrada-Hernandez never imagined when he came to Iowa City as a student that he’d stay as a faculty member. But he now has achieved tenure status at the UI and is director of the rehabilitation counselor education doctoral program.

“To lead the program that started all of these connections is pretty challenging for me and I consider it a huge responsibility,” he says.

Santos, who was elected to serve as the national student representative to the National Council on Rehabilitation Education, says her time at the UI has allowed her to develop important leadership and professional skills she’ll put to work back home in Puerto Rico.

“Every student who graduates from the University of Iowa Ph.D. program is successful when they return to Puerto Rico,” Santos says.