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Serafin Méndez-Méndez Dr. Serafín Méndez-Méndez:
Teaching as Storytelling

“Years ago I traveled to a hospital in Puerto Rico and interviewed an AIDS patient,” Dr. Serafín Méndez-Méndez, professor and chair of the Communication Department, used to tell students in his upper-level Health Communication Campaigns class. “Her muscles were wasted and she was badly ulcerated, but she said she had been hanging on so she could tell me her story. I wrote down her words, how she had been denied medication by doctors who refused her treatment because she was a sex worker infected with AIDS. The next morning she died. But I made sure her testament of social stigmatism and discrimination went into my report to the Department of Health in PR, assessing needs, public opinion, and health care delivery.”

It’s the communication professor’s style to instill concepts through concrete examples. “Storytelling, I strongly believe, is one of the best pedagogical, didactic tools,” declares Méndez-Méndez. “My most memorable professor at the University of Puerto Rico, where I did my undergraduate work, was a former journalist. She fascinated me with her stream of stories. Once, she was relaxing in St. Thomas when a cruise ship caught fire. She forgot all about her vacation and instead spent her entire time covering the story.” From her he adopted the knack of translating theory into application, because, he says, “One of the goals I have for CCSU students is that they become skilled to go out into the real world, prepared with practical knowledge they can apply so they can make a difference.”

Journalism and communication research have always intrigued Méndez-Méndez, but teaching is an art he “inherited” he says proudly. Méndez-Méndez, who has lived in the U.S. for more than two decades, visits Puerto Rico regularly and says, “I come from a family of teachers and college professors. One of my father’s oldest brothers played a crucial role in bringing the first public high school to our home town of San Sebastian in Puerto Rico. My mother was a third grade teacher for 30 years. My sister is a teacher and my aunt was a school superintendent. From my generation, there are three other college professors in the U.S. and in PR.”

Where Contemporary Issues and Media Theory Meet

Infusing current developments into his classes, Méndez-Méndez has been an innovator in introducing the study of HIV/AIDS into the Communication Department curriculum. Having studied the communication barriers that hinder the effective diffusion of HIV/AIDS prevention and education campaigns among Latino populations, he presented his work at international AIDS conferences and published in the Journal of Latino Studies. “Medical providers working with Puerto Rican populations both in the U.S. and in the island picked up my research,” he states.

This creative activity culminated in his participation in the Airbridge Research Project (1996 and 1998), a multi-disciplinary project funded by the Connecticut Department of Public Health. He explains, “As principal investigator, I assembled a team of researchers and practitioners, and we were able to show that structural barriers, such as low income, lack of transportation, and language barriers, were big problems faced by Latinos. I proposed a communication-based medication adherence model aimed at increasing the Latino compliance with HIV/AIDS medications.” The findings, adopted by several HIV clinics in Connecticut, were presented at the 1998 AIDS Conference in Geneva, Switzerland.

“Dr. Méndez-Méndez’ class dealing with AIDS made a lasting impression on me,” comments Danielle Zaffarana Poulin ’95, who now is assignment editor at WVIT-TV 30. “I gained a real appreciation of diversity. To this day I strive to look at different people beyond stereotypes. In this field I’m on the front line before a story goes anywhere, so it’s important that I’m open and comprehend where different people are coming from before I make a decision.”

Gaining the Media’s Attention

Méndez-Méndez has worked with Diane Alverio, from Baldwin and Alverio Media Marketing, in the research and publication of the Network Brownout study, published annually by the National Association of Hispanic Journalists and by the National Council of La Raza. “The study gauges the quantitative presence of Latinos in network news in the U.S. and provides a qualitative assessment of the image of Latinos in these stories,” says Méndez-Méndez. Last year release of the report was covered by major national news outlets, such as CNN, the Washington Post, the New York Daily News, The Los Angeles Times and The Hartford Courant. Says Méndez-Méndez, “More than the notoriety, I’m pleased that the study is used as reference material in undergraduate and graduate sociology and journalism courses in the U.S. and was recently used as evidence in a public hearing held by the FCC regarding the changing of ownership rules for the media.”

Méndez-Méndez’ fascination with Caribbean popular cultures and media studies led to a collaborative project with Professor Ronald Fernandez to write an encyclopedia, targeting North American students who have little or no knowledge of Puerto Rico. The book, Puerto Rico: Past and Present (Greenwood Press, 1998), earned four national awards as an outstanding reference book. Next, he co-authored with Fernandez and Dr. Gail Cueto, associate professor of teacher education, Notable Caribbean and Caribbean Americans (Greenwood Press, 2003), a biographic dictionary.

One Day in the Life of CCSU

Eager to keep students in step with the latest media trends, Méndez-Méndez has developed a new course, Digital Photography. Last semester, students in his digital photography class, using their newly acquired skills, created a documentary, One Day in the Life of CCSU. “They began work at noon and concluded their shooting 24 hours later,” explains Méndez-Méndez. “They took approximately 1,600 photographs and selected a representative sample of 65 photos that constituted a student exhibit held in the University Gallery. In all my 14 years teaching here, I found this class to be the most exciting and engaging one thus far!”

Brendan Kobus, a senior history major/communication minor, has signed up for an upcoming digital photography class. He enjoyed Méndez-Méndez’ “intellectual, but easy-going” style and said, “In my media literacy class, he opened my eyes whenever we deconstructed media text and got to meanings beyond what’s written on the page. He did a great job of mixing anecdotal evidence with academic theory. He’s fantastic!”

— Geri Radacsi

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