Hispanic Heritage Month opens on September 15 annually, a mid-month timing that coincides with the anniversary of Independence Days for several Latin American countries. With observance of the heritage month in mind, Hector Pulgar talks about his activities and goals in research and academic enhancement.
Pulgar, an assistant professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, is originally from Chile. He connects with the East Tennessee community through his cultural and academic experience to help pre-college students learn about opportunities as Engineering Vols. In 2021, Pulgar received a National Science Foundation (NSF) Early CAREER, given to researchers who are making an impact early in their career.
What is your cultural background—your hometown or country?
I am from the south of Chile—Los Angeles. It’s a very long country, which results in a cultural difference along the country; north, central, and south of Chile. The climate is different. How people talk is different, and their traditions are different as well.
For observing Hispanic Heritage Month, how do you personally celebrate?
We celebrate our Independence Day in Chile, on September 18. We have special meals and music. I know that all my people in Chile were celebrating with their extended families and friends. So, it’s within this month of celebration. I go to dance, too—salsa. Maybe I do it more intensively this month.
In what ways are you able to connect your heritage through your work, or in relating to students?
I was awarded the NSF Career Award at the beginning of the year, and I planned through this award to work with Hispanic students. I started to work with Lenoir City High School as there is a high percentage of Hispanic students here. I believe that I will be more influential with them, because students will see me as somebody like them—maybe with a similar accent. I thought that this might be impactful. So, the idea is to give them hope, encourage them and show them a path to higher education. Maybe not many students come from Lenoir City High School to the university, because it’s hard. I believe most of these students do not have an academic role model within their families or friends, and probably nobody has told them that they can go to the university. If I get even one student that can come, that would be a big thing. I could have worked with any other culture but I think that I can be more effective with Hispanic students. It’s all about that.
So you can share opportunities with them that they might not have known about. Do you have students who have come to UT through these connections?
Yes. I remember one student that got very well connected with me. She was from Lenoir City, and she went to the Lenoir City High School. She was very thankful for the course I was teaching and the way I explained the material. I think that our cultural similarity had an impact that helped her to move forward in her career. Now she’s working as an engineer. So my role for her was very important because it made a difference for her.
So, we all are important with our cultural background. We all add something. That diversity kind of helps, because the students are diverse. And, that’s the value.
I have colleagues that focus more on some part of the education and what they transmit to the students. But others transmit something else, and the cultural background is something you cannot put out of the equation. Our cultural background is there in how you see the world, and how you are able to explain things. Explaining a subject from different angles is very helpful for the students, because they can have a better understanding or a better description of the same subject from different perspectives.
So the reference points help move things along in a classroom setting, passing on the knowledge and information?
Right, right, I believe so. It’s not just about your country of origin. I believe we have many cultures, as well as microcultures. You have a culture because you belong to a country. And then you have a micro-aspect because you might be for a specific region within that country. Then you have another micro-aspect because of the family you are coming from. At the end, all these things make you who you are. In my personal case, all of these aspects made me care about my students. I care about the Lenoir City High School students; I care about my students at the university.
In regards to the classroom, teaching is not easy—we’re all different in the way that we learn, in the way that we see things. By being aware of that, I have tried to teach in different fashions. I have tried to use different ways to teach. For example, there are students that like to hear a story. So I try to talk and the students like following a narrative. But others like to solve problems on the whiteboard. Or they like more visual things such as videos or PowerPoint slides. So, I need to go through all the different styles, because then my teaching will be diverse and I will be able to reach all of them. So that’s again, diversity in a different way, you know. Because we are all different. There is not just one way to learn.
What are some ways you hope to participate with UT’s Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE)?
My intention is to create a mentoring program for Hispanic students at the university. Initially in my area, but then I might start expanding this to the department, and then other departments within the college of engineering. The idea is to show students a path for development, a path for a future career in engineering, or for some of them a path in academia. It’s not that all of them will follow this, but at least they will be aware and they can take a good decision in their path. I want to take them to visit maybe an electrical substation in the area, or have invited guests with Hispanic background.
SHPE can help because they have a network of professionals. I was thinking that through them, maybe I can get some speakers that can come and talk about careers, or talk about mentoring and how we can be better mentors and impact others. I desire that Hispanic students within our university are able to go with me to the Lenoir City High School to bring a light of hope, to motivate them, and show them that they are able to achieve their goals with passion and determination.
Are there any overall goals you’d like to see progress for the community at UT?
Your horizon grows when you know a different perspective or different culture, not just Hispanic. It’s all the cultures. We can grow, we can see the world with a different perspective. That change that will make us better. In Tennessee, the percentage of Hispanic and other cultures is not large, but we don’t have to wait until we’re like 20% or 50% to do something.
We can work now because we are engineers open to the world, not just to East Tennessee. Students don’t know yet where they’re going to work eventually. Working in teams and understanding everybody—that’s important. We don’t work alone. That’s what I expect to see. If I can make a contribution in that aspect, for as small that it can be, I think that will be important.