Meet Juan Carlos Espinosa, dean of the Honors College

Born in Cuba, Juan Carlos Espinosa left the island when he was five years old and settled in Miami a year later. He earned his bachelor’s degree in international relations from Florida State University and studied abroad in the former Yugoslavia. 

Espinosa then returned to Miami to pursue his Ph. D. in comparative politics at the University of Miami, where he studied Latin America, specifically Cuba. He arrived at FIU’s Honors College in 2006, where he served as an associate dean until he became the dean in 2017.

FIU News caught up with Dean Espinosa to ask him about his vision for the Honors College.

What would you like the university community to know about the Honors College?

It is a laboratory to try new things at the university. It’s also a place where our interdisciplinary approach can be integrated into every department. Our students are shared students, so if you’re a philosophy major and you’re in the Honors College – you belong to both and should be able to get the best in resources and support from both.

What we offer is not only an education, but also a place to develop the intellectual and vocational tools you’ll need to succeed at FIU and beyond. I always tell my students that life is not a major. Life is a group project. You have to be ready and present. There is a dress code, and you have to show up on time. And mostly, that everything is connected.

I think the ability to connect dots is the most important thing that we try to get the students of the Honors College to do on their own. In the end, most of what we learn doesn’t happen necessarily in a classroom or out of a textbook. It’s from the experience of learning with others and maybe some extracurricular activity. We learn what it is to be human, and we try to find out who we are; college is the place to do that.

Can you give me an example of something new that your college is doing?

We have an Edge Innovation lab. It is a small makerspace that was created by students. They were involved in writing tech fee grants so that we could purchase 3D printers, laser cutters and other equipment. All of it is created for and by students. It’s open to everyone. It’s about how to take an idea all the way to prototype.

We also have a thing called social innovation day. We have a first year, one-credit course called “Intro.” In the first semester, students identify a problem, conduct surveys and interviews and do whatever it takes to do the research and find solutions. Then, they produce a white paper, where they prescribe solutions to this problem. Next, they make an old fashioned academic poster, which is more like a visual abstract, and present it at social innovation day. Sometimes those solutions have second lives — that is they go on to become real products or programs beyond the end of the semester.

5 favorite things 

What is your favorite part of the job? My favorite thing to do is [meet with students]. I recently had coffee with the students who had been elected to SGA. I don’t think I could make good decisions in terms of curriculum unless I had my boots on the ground and spent a lot of time with students.

What is your favorite food on campus? Vicky’s croquetas.

Favorite sport? Rugby. I think it’s an elegant, gentleman’s sport.

Favorite genre? Classical music.

Favorite artist? Ganavya Doraiswamy. She is also a former student of mine.

Is there another example of something you may not get exposure to as a normal student that you would in the Honors college?

Unique partnerships – classes, internships, employers, all kinds of opportunities that you get only if you are an Honors College student. We also have partnerships on campus with the Colleges of Medicine and Law, departments, StartUP FIU and the Changemaker Campus project. There’s partners on campus that see that having Honors College students is a great resource for them. We also know that many students that graduate from here tend to stay in South Florida. So, if you’re looking of the best and brightest students, why not turn to the Honors College?

We also have people coming from different places that want to teach here. Google is teaching two courses here where students can get a certification. One of them is a digital marketing course and the other is a data analytics course. It’s made interdisciplinary by its Honors context, but it’s Google that approached us, and we are thrilled.

In terms of curriculum, one of the coolest things I’ve been involved with is when I’ve talked to students about their classes and ask them for suggestions. Sometimes they come up with cool ideas for classes. I’ll say, “Let’s get together, and let’s make a group.” We’ve created about five classes over the last eight years that came out of student initiative and those students became assistants in those classes.

What vision do you see for the Honors College going forward?

For me, my main role is to help build FIU by building the Honors College. Since we’re integrated because our students are shared, we support the university in everything. So many of our students who are alumni give back. I think we’re also a model for the importance of diversity, the importance of community and having a sense of humor.

I love FIU. One of the ways I love FIU is by making honors stronger and bigger and better. That’s the essence. But beyond that, it’s my passion for education. And for helping people to compete, to make themselves better.

I’m very sports minded. Sometimes I treat education as an athletic event. For example, when you come across material that is difficult but maybe not relevant to your major, you have to warm up, stretch. If you don’t stretch, you can’t really work out to your optimal level. You can’t build the strength you need to compete. And they’re people from other universities that have been competing for a long time.

It’s like a game of musical chairs. If you want to go to medical school, there’s that one chair, the music and people from all over the country. I want my students to always get the chair. And if they don’t win, I want them to have the tools to get up and compete again.