Belkys Torres poses for a photo at the Global Hub in Posvar Hall.
Belkys Torres poses for a photo at the Global Hub in Posvar Hall.
Betul Tuncer | Editor-in-Chief

Belkys Torres: Trailblazing inclusive education through global engagement 

As the first-born daughter of Cuban refugees and a first-generation college and doctoral graduate, many aspects of Belkys Torres’ life experience and identity shape the way she fosters education at Pitt. 

Torres found herself with an opportunity to travel to her parent’s home country, Cuba, for the first time in 2017. During her weeklong trip, Torres experienced a “moment of growth and connection” in learning from Pitt’s university partners at the University of Havana. 

“That dynamic and cultural tension between going to a place where my heritage and my roots are and not being fully of that place really opened my eyes to the way in which we talk to students about sense of belonging and respect for culture, tradition, language learning and understanding politics in ways that are incredibly nuanced and personal,” Torres said. 

Almost seven years later, Torres still applies the lessons she learned on her trip in her work today as Pitt’s associate vice provost for inclusive excellence in education. 

“The more we can sit back and listen and understand other people’s experiences, the more we grow and the more we can evolve and change as well. And so that’s been really special,” Torres said reflecting on the importance of active listening as an educator and administrator. 

Having assumed her inaugural associate vice provost role last January, Torres has worked on various projects during her almost nine years at the University, including increasing multicultural engagement opportunities, reforming general education requirements and establishing the Global Hub, among other things. Torres is also a teaching assistant professor in Latinx and Gender Studies and researches the influence of popular culture for marginalized women. 

Before coming to Pitt, Torres worked at the University of Miami as the academic director for Latin American studies in 2015. Ariel Armony, the current vice chancellor for global affairs, recruited her for the role of associate director of international programs at Pitt, which she held for about a year and a half before getting promoted to vice provost for global engagement. 

Torres found her path to higher education administration during her undergraduate years as one of only three Latinx students at her school. She and her peers created the first student organization to raise Hispanic awareness at the time as a way to address the concerns of Latinx students who were “outside of the mainstream culture of the institution.” 

“That was the beginning of a trajectory for me where I realized that there’s a lot of power in academia — not just inside the classroom, but outside the classroom — to make a difference in students’ lives,” Torres said. 

When Torres came to the university in 2015, one of the first projects she worked on involved developing Pitt’s first Global Plan that would enable the University to invest more into global studies programs. 

“We spent about a year talking with student groups, faculty, staff, alumni, partners, abroad and around Pittsburgh, about what this plan would look like,” Torres said. “One of the things that we learned was that students feel really fortunate to be at an institution that has so many resources around global learning classes, internship opportunities, study abroad opportunities [and] funding, but they were always really confused about where to go to just ask the first questions.”

Thus, out of the “Embracing the World: A Global Plan for Pitt 2016-2020” grew the Global Hub — a place on campus where students could come to learn about global opportunities at Pitt and engage with different cultures and languages. During this time, Torres also continued to expand her work at the University taking on the new role of executive director of global engagement in 2018. 

As the project lead executive director, Torres played a vital role in the creation and plan for the Global Hub. The two-year process involved student focus groups and much collaboration between faculty, the provost’s office, the project architects and many others. 

In academic year 2018-2019, the Year of Pitt Global celebrated Pitt being at home in the world and the world finding a home here at Pitt. Belkys Torres, steering committee co-chair, welcomes participants to the Global Showcase. (Courtesy of Belkys Torres)

The Global Hub — “a source of pride” for Torres — officially opened in 2019. Torres said in creating the Global Hub on the main floor of Posvar Hall, the idea was that any student would feel welcomed into the space and could learn more about global studies — which is reflected in the comfortable seating and digital learning environments on display. 

“Everything that you see in the space is actually curated specifically for Pitt students,” Torres said. “And so, it’s always changing and evolving. As students provide feedback and share their ideas, the Global Hub will change and it will continue to evolve. And that’s the point, that it grows along with our student community.”

Jeff Whitehead, executive director of global engagement, has worked alongside Torres since she first came to Pitt and noted her role in creating the Global Hub as a “remarkable achievement.” 

“She managed to take an empty and somewhat gloomy hallway and make it into something as beautiful as it has become,” Whitehead said. “It’s really an amazing feat.” 

At the time, Whitehead served as the director of study abroad and worked closely with Torres on the planning process for the Global Hub. 

“I saw the obstacles that she had to overcome to make that come to fruition. And it was really wonderful when it finally did,” Whitehead said. 

While the majority of Torres’ work at Pitt has focused on global engagement and multicultural programs, this past year she has taken on new challenges. Her current position in the provost’s office is a first at Pitt and is based on research from the American Association for Colleges and Universities. Her role focuses on questioning what it means for an institution like Pitt to provide “inclusive and excellent education.” 

“It’s a position that’s starting to identify what are some of the structural barriers to student success,” Torres said. “Because of the policies or the practices, and procedures that we have in place that, unintentionally, disproportionately affect a part of our student population in some way.” 

Just over a year into this new position, Torres has already taken to reshaping University policies to better fit the needs of students. Most recently she has been working on reforming general education requirements for undergraduates. 

Along with her work for the institution, Torres has also made it a point to foster a sense of community at Pitt. Torres serves as the co-chair of the Hispanic Latinx Professional Association, which allows her to collaborate with the Latinx Student Association and the Latin American Graduate Student Organization. 

“It’s been fantastic to work with the LSA this year in that capacity,” Torres said. “I’ve been connecting them with our colleagues in philanthropy to help them develop a more robust and strategic fundraising plan for the organization moving forward.”

Olivia Lopez, president of LSA and a senior athletic training major, said Torres has acted as a resource to students and the organization’s “rock keeping [them] steady throughout the year.”

While Lopez’s relationship with Torres is less than a year old, she described her as an integral part of the Pitt community.

“Her involvement and intense passion for broadening our scope of learning on a global scale has enabled us to access more resources and create more connections,” Lopez said. “She is always eager to collaborate with various organizations and departments to come together to make something magical.” 

“Dedicated and incredibly charismatic,” are what come to mind when Lopez thinks of Torres. 

“What you won’t learn about Belkys by reading her bio is that she is so easy to talk to,” Lopez said. “Any time you speak to her, she is extremely engaged and knows how to connect with people. You will also definitely share a laugh with her.”

Whitehead emphasized Torres’ passion and ability to foster connection even during challenging times. He said Torres played a major role in keeping up morale and maintaining strong communication during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“Despite the fact that it was a very challenging time, we wound up having some really good memories. So, she kept it lighthearted, and was a really great leader through that very challenging period,” Whitehead said. “I’m happy to say that we came out the other side.” 

Global Hub Grand Opening. Torres illustrates the Engagement Wall to Provost Ann Cudd and Dr. James Craft.
(Courtesy of Belkys Torres)

Since coming to Pittsburgh, Torres has brought about many changes to the University. She said what excites her about Pitt is that people can recognize the need to constantly improve. 

 “I think if I leave the institution as one that’s more curious and interested in immigrant and ethnic populations, if we are an institution where we are more welcoming and respectful of folks from all cultures and all backgrounds, I think I’ll walk away really excited about that experience,” Torres said. “I know that there are really a lot of folks everywhere that are committed to that work. And we all recognize that there’s a lot of work to be done.”

From creating the Global Hub and expanding global education to remaining a dedicated leader during a pandemic, Whitehead underscored all of Torres’ hard work at Pitt. 

“I think that the impact will have only just begun,” Whitehead said. “She’ll continue to bring her really fantastic personality and demeanor and balanced approach, solving problems and then working towards making the student experience a really great one for sure. You know, for generations, I hope.”

As a first-generation student turned administrator and educator, Torres hopes she can continue to act as a resource for students. 

“I’m a believer in conversation and the power of good dialogue,” Torres said. “And so I encourage students to reach out, to come and have some Cuban coffee if they want and have a good conversation, always.”