Dr. Chanza Torres helps build community on Westminster’s campus
by Autumn Thatcher (MSC ’15)
Professor Eileen Chanza Torres did not set out to be an advocate in the traditional sense. A Puerto Rican native who split her time between Puerto Rico and New York, Eileen is one of five daughters who her mother hoped would go into the medical profession. Nearly a decade after migrating to New York, Eileen returned to Puerto Rico determined to honor her mother’s wishes.
“The reason why I went into nursing, more than my mother’s desire, was because I grew up in the AIDS epidemic,” Eileen explains. “I saw friends and family die. I knew that I wanted to do something. Nursing became that thing.”
After working as an LPN in Puerto Rico for eight years, Eileen returned to New York. She was undeterred by the physical demand her career required of her. But the reality of discrimination within the healthcare system took its toll.
“If you are at all interested in justice or anything along the lines of equality, the medical industry is a good way to be burned out really fast and realize what the inequalities are,” Eileen says. “The physical work is hard, but the emotional burden was even harder.”
Eileen made the decision to leave nursing and pursue higher education. Her immense love for books led to the completion of a bachelor’s degree in English literature through the support of a Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship. Following graduation, Eileen was accepted into Stony Brook University in New York, where she embarked on the path to her doctorate.
“I started imagining what role literature played in my life, and what role it played in the Caribbean,” Eileen says. “My dissertation was about the Caribbean and, specifically, how literature— for those of us whose histories are silenced—gives us something to hold on to.”
While finishing her degrees, Eileen taught classes at community colleges in New York, largely attended by non-traditional students of color from diverse backgrounds. She knew that no matter where her degree took her, she wanted to teach working-class students and people of color.
In 2013, days after turning in her dissertation, Eileen accepted a visiting assistant professor position at Westminster College.
“The demographic is very different,” Eileen says of Westminster. “There are maybe one or two students who are not white in your class. My very presence in the classroom makes folks uncomfortable. I don’t look like the traditional professor; I don’t look like what they assume as the stereotype of what a Puerto Rican is either.”
Four years since her arrival, Eileen has become an assistant professor in English and now serves as the program chair for both English and gender studies. She still sees injustices all around her, but through the power of literature and her passion to decolonize language, Eileen is making a difference. There has been a learning curve for her, but more importantly, there has been a shift in the way her classroom is run. She has been reminded what teaching is about and how books can change the world. She has learned that there are students at Westminster desperately wanting to find a place. Her ability to listen, to mentor, and to support has resulted in diving into new subject matter, both in the classroom and out.
“Being a person of color on this campus is overwhelming and taxing,” Eileen says. “But then there are these moments where you make these really wonderful connections with students, and these connections can lead to your own intellectual development.”
Over the course of her time at Westminster, Eileen has become known as an advocate on campus for social justice. Among many other things, she oversaw the Be a Human campaign led by Westminster alum Emerson L.R. Barrett (’17) and has worked with her students to bring literature into the classroom that those from marginalized groups can identify with. She organized Westminster’s first-ever Sex Positive Week, bringing guest speakers ranging from professional sex workers to trans-identifying individuals who use social media to educate and support others, and she helped organize a student-run bake sale to benefit the people of Puerto Rico devastated by Hurricane Maria.
“What I love about Westminster—and one of the reasons why I am still at Westminster—is that there is a wonderful, intimate but professional relationship that you develop with your students that is about developing into a better human,” Eileen says.
While she is no longer working in the medical field, Eileen is accomplishing her original goal of making a difference: she is providing a source of inspiration to Westminster’s campus. She is advocating while educating. And whether intentional or not, she is changing lives in ways that perhaps she never imagined.
About the Westminster Review
The Westminster Review is Westminster College’s bi-annual alumni magazine that is distributed to alumni and community members. Each issue aims to keep alumni updated on campus current events and highlights the accomplishments of current students, professors, and Westminster alum.