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Faculty Spotlight: Wilfredo Cruz

May 8, 2012

By Sean McEntee ('14)

As an associate professor of sociology at Columbia College Chicago, Wilfredo Cruz spends a lot of his time throwing both himself and his students into the heart of today’s most controversial issues.

And he loves it.

Cruz said he has a teaching advantage at Columbia, where he has taught for 18 years, due to the college’s diverse student body, and with his wide range of sociological classes—including Marriage and Family, Race and Ethnic Relations, Social Problems in American Society, and the Sociology of Sports—the melting pot of Columbia makes for great discussion.

“It’s a great [subject] for some very heavy discussions,” he said. “But you have to keep it balanced because it can get pretty heated; students can get pretty heated. I say on the first day of class, ‘We respect each other.’”

Student views at Columbia range from conservative to radical, and Cruz said this causes interesting conversation to develop in and outside of the classroom. He said that many students experience different cultures for the first time upon arriving at college, and he enjoys witnessing that process.

“Some come in with a good understanding of social issues and some are still developing their perspective, but they’re very impressionable,” Cruz said.

Cruz added that the great thing about sociology is that it combines contemporary issues with important elements of history, and Cruz uses history to show students how much power and influence they have.

“As a professor, I try to be objective, but I always talk about social movements,” Cruz said. “If you look at social movements in society, students have always played a very influential role.”

Cruz said some good examples of this are the Civil Rights movements, Vietnam War protests, and the current Occupy Wall Street movement.

“By talking about social movements, I guess in a way I’m implicitly encouraging them to get involved,” he added.

Although Cruz said being objective is crucial to facilitating sensitive discussions, Cruz brings his own background into the classroom, such as growing up poor and Latino in Chicago’s public housing.

“Students like those stories because they can relate to them,” he said. “You can’t be too objective; you have to bring in personal stories of your own struggles.”

His background is what influenced him to enter the field of sociology in the first place.

Cruz said he always wanted to be a professor. When he was growing up, his peers nicknamed him “Pro,” and Cruz said in all his yearbooks where it asks about professional aspirations, his answer was always “professor.” After finding his niche in sociology, Cruz said his place at Columbia is a perfect fit.

He said his students often praise him for the passion he expresses in the classroom, and he finds the interaction with students to be extremely rewarding.

“One thing I love about teaching is I’m around young people all the time, and they keep you young,” he said. “We get old and can become very cynical about life and very bitter, but being around young people and young students who are idealistic and have a strong sense of justice and who like to talk about [social issues] in a way kind of keeps me young. ...They are saying things that are very personal and very profound in the classroom.”