Maria smiling with colorful artwork in the background

New LEI director highlights diversity, inclusion, and her native Puerto Rico

October 4, 2022
By: Nancy Sheehan

Growing up in Puerto Rico, María Alicia Juncos-Gautier could see how sprawling overdevelopment harmed the island’s natural beauty and resources, especially around the coast and beautiful beaches. “As a teenager, that led me to the environmental movement and working with underrepresented communities that were being displaced by these developments and impacted by gentrification,” she said.

Through that youthful advocacy, she developed a strong passion for social justice, a focus she brings to her new role as the executive director of the Latino Education Institute (LEI) at Worcester State University. She was named to the post in June after a nationwide search.

“When I learned about LEI, I liked that the organization was a nonprofit and was already doing social justice work. I have always liked to work in this type of organization and social justice movements,” she said.

Juncos-Gautier most recently served three years as a researcher and consultant at the University of Vermont (UVM). Specifically, she worked on different projects at UVM’s Office of Sustainability, the Agroecology & Livelihoods Collaborative at the Department of Plants and Soil Science, and the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources. 

Previously, she served 14 years as the director and founder of the Center of Sustainable Development Studies (CSDS) at Universidad Metropolitana/UMET—renamed the Ana G. Mendez University—in San Juan. While working as director of the CSDS, Juncos-Gautier developed numerous educational projects, conferences, and technical trips to advance sustainability in Puerto Rico in the social, environmental, and economic domains. She did this with the sponsorship of local professional associations, government agencies, and through grants. 

Juncos-Gautier has a bachelor’s degree in communications from UMass Amherst, an M.S. in environmental management from Ana. G. Mendez University, San Juan, and a Ph.D. in environmental studies from York University in Toronto, Canada.

Growing up in San Juan, Juncos-Gautier was always a bit of a rebel. “When I was a little girl, I was always going my own way,” Juncos-Gautier, said, “but my mother was very supportive of my ideas and encouraged my creativity.”

That youthful rebelliousness developed into the passion for social and environmental justice that infused every aspect of her career. “You spend eight hours a day working for most of your life, so for me, it’s important to work for a cause that’s meaningful for you. As a Puerto Rican, I have felt that sense of not being completely a citizen, of belonging yet not belonging. In Puerto Rico, we have fought and struggled for decades to make our voices heard for social justice and equity. So, I know how hard things can be in my heart, which influences my passion and desire to do something to help.”

When Juncos-Gautier was working on her Ph.D. in Toronto, Puerto Rico was already in deep economic distress. Then, a year later, in 2017, Hurricane Maria slammed the island, a high-end category 4 storm with a devastating storm surge, record rainfall, and winds greater than 100 miles per hour. Homes and businesses were destroyed, and the island was without electricity for months. As a student living in Toronto, Juncos-Gautier could only provide emotional support to family and friends after the devastation of Maria.

Almost exactly five years later, Puerto Rico endured another storm, Hurricane Fiona, which hit on Sept. 18, knocking out power to the entire island again while battering it with high winds, catastrophic flash floods, and mudslides. These events showed how vulnerable Puerto Rico is to climate change. It also showed the lack of resilient infrastructure, which has been fragile and crumbling for decades, combined with the unsustainable sprawling development that is still going on. 

Also, under territorial rule, the local government has not been able to guarantee appropriate and prompt relief, even for basic needs like electricity and water. Now, as executive director of the LEI, Juncos-Gautier is planning to join forces with local nonprofits, the City of Worcester, and community groups to help the island get back on its feet again. “Nevertheless, we must remember that these devastating events will be more frequent with climate change. As a Puerto Rican, I often feel exhausted and hopeless. The island’s sociopolitical status and unsustainable situation have not changed for decades. We are citizens of the United States, and our voices need to be heard, especially now that we are extremely vulnerable to climate change as a small island in the Caribbean. Puerto Rico has been in limbo for too long.” 

She said the lessons she learned in Puerto Rico will translate to positive action in her new role. “All the years of struggle have made me a survivor and fighter. With this opportunity that the LEI has given me, I would like to contribute in ways that will benefit the Latinx community here in Worcester without forgetting my people in Puerto Rico.” She and Mary Jo Marion, the Worcester State assistant vice president of urban affairs, have already discussed creating exchange opportunities. “I would like to connect students from Puerto Rico with the diaspora community here in Worcester through different educational and cultural exchange programs. The aim is to promote closer academic relationships and new socioeconomic opportunities for WSU, the City of Worcester, and my people in Puerto Rico.”

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