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Universidad Centroamericana José Simeón Cañas: Meet the Rector

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Located in San Salvador, El Salvador, the Universidad Centroamericana José Simeón Cañas (UCA) is ranked in QS Latin American University Rankings 2020 and is the only university that ranked in El Salvador.

To learn more about Universidad Centroamericana José Simeón Cañas (UCA) and what it offers international students, we spoke to its rector, P. Andreu Oliva. 

Could you tell us about your background and how you became rector?

I was still a university student when I began teaching at night classes for people who had not finished primary school. I first started teaching language and mathematics; I was 19 or 20 years old. After graduating as an engineer, I became a teaching assistant at “Escuela de Ingenieros” in Barcelona. Later I worked in a technical school in a city near Barcelona and I became sub-principal at that school.

I came to Central America in 1984, where I worked as a professor at the Universidad Nacional de Ingeniería and at “Universidad Centroamericana” both in Nicaragua. Afterwards I initiated my studies at the Society of Jesus; after finishing my studies as a Jesuit I worked for some years at a rural parish in Honduras where I oversaw development projects. Later I went back to the “Universidad Centroamericana” of Nicaragua where I was General Vice-president for four years.

In 2001, I came back to El Salvador and worked in development projects and with NGOs, working on reconstructing country (after two big earthquakes), mainly in popular housing.

In 2009 I started working at the Universidad Centroamericana of El Salvador as Vice-president of social projection for a year, and in January 2011 I became rector.

What is the main mission and pillars of the university?

The Universidad Centroamericana José Simeón Cañas’s mission is to transform Salvadoran and Central American society founded in social justice and respect to human rights through the three main functions of the university: Teaching, where we aim for academic excellence while we form competent professionals with huge social commitment; Investigation, where we aim  to start all investigations with an in depth comprehension of Salvadoran reality so it becomes a transforming investigation which allows us to comprehend in depth this reality in order to acknowledge aspects that must be transformed and propose changes in such aspects.

These proposals are carried throughout our third main function of Social Projection, which is a concept developed by Father Ignacio Ellacuría, a special characteristic of our university. The university’s main issue is Salvadoran reality, the transformation of such society and a desire to influence decision makers but also in Salvadoran culture so we can build a different society, an inclusive society, a society with social justice, with equity, with equal opportunities.

How important are international students?        

I believe students, and many people around the world, value our university’s mission and its social project. We search for the transformational incidence in society. In fact, we have had postgraduate and doctorate students from other universities that carry out their investigation in El Salvador or in the university.

We also have an important group of universities whose staff or teachers visit us to learn how we work at the university. Of course, we are interested in international students, but unfortunately an option in a developing country is not as valued as others around the world.

A major option in El Salvador is not as valued as a major option in the US or other developed country. This makes it difficult for international students to come to this university and study. Of course, they can come to carry out their investigations or get to know how the university works, but we are not very attractive to international students due to this distinction, even marginalization, that global societies have for these universities located in developing countries.

We have had some programs with students from the US who study here for one semester and still earn credits at their university of origin, but also have an immersive experience in Salvadoran culture. Unfortunately, this program had to be cancelled due to security issues in the country around two or three years ago as the country registered an increase in the number of homicides.

How do you think you can attract international students to come to your country and learn at UCA?

One of the main attractions could be learning Spanish. In El Salvador, the Spanish that is spoken is very neutral and easy to understand compared to other variations of the language in other countries where Spanish is spoken.

Another attraction, and probably more important than the previous, is to understand the ethos of our university, not just a learning, knowledge goal, but a social one as well.

The fact that UCA contributes to social change, and considering that UCA has a great deal of knowledge of Salvadoran culture with valuable research about it.

It presents students from other cultures with an opportunity to understand why there are poor societies here, taking a look at ways to overcome this poverty, how a university is implied in politics not from a party perspective,  but as a tool to respond to public policies, to come into play in the decisions being taken by the country's rulers, an university studies and researches the Salvadoran and Central American reality and looks for solutions to the big problems that these societies have. I think these are very interesting aspects.

Moreover, the students will find an academic staff that is committed and proficient, having learning experiences in different parts of the world (Latin America, United States, and Europe). We have excellent specialized professors and researchers.

How is the university promoting itself to international audiences?         

I think that is our major weakness. We have invested little in communicating our university’s values and expertise worldwide so that students could get to know our university and decide to visit.

We have made an effort with our students that are willing to be a part of academic exchange programs (Erasmus Mundus, for example) where we have participated in several groups of universities that promote student academic interchange, but I think this is a debt we have; we need to dedicate more time to this. We have the office of International Relations and Cooperation, but they are more focused on cooperation in research.

Is the university thinking about offering more courses in English to attract more international students?

We have a School of Languages that teaches Spanish to students that don’t know the language and we have projected to initiate programs in English. We have some postgraduate programs in Finance and Business Enterprises where some subjects are offered in English, and are taught by English speaking professors.

The percentage is low (two or three subjects of a program that has 24 subjects in total), but we plan to start offering a higher number of classes in English to attract more international students, but also to help Salvadoran students have greater immersion with the English language which would definitely help them in their future careers.

How would you like the university to be seen on an international level? 

I would like UCA to be recognized for its academic excellence, and how through its intellectual work, study and research is contributing to change the world beginning with our region and our country, to create a more just world that could offer more equal opportunities and a university that is committed to its mission and empowers our society.

Can you tell us a bit about the process for students interested in studying at UCA?   

In El Salvador, the universities are very affordable in comparison to other parts of the world. Each student goes through an economic study and based on that we determine their monthly payments to the university. Our fees for undergraduate studies are between $2,200 to $5,000 per year, whereas a two-year postgraduate program in El Salvador is $6,000.

Life is general is also inexpensive. A student can live well with a monthly budget of $500 in El Salvador and there are lots of safe and low-cost accommodation options very close to the university.

The registration process is on our webpage. There is a link for admissions where you can find all the program information we have for postgraduate and undergraduate studies.

What is your final message as a university leader for students in these times of uncertainty?

The Universidad Centroamericana José Simeón Cañas is committed to academic quality, to transforming the world, and helping individuals be better people that could help change the world, and here they would find a welcoming space to make their wishes true.

El Salvador is a very beautiful, tropical country with unique nature, and Salvadorans are very caring, welcoming and friendly people who make foreigners feel at home.

Besides that, the university cares about its people and we try to give the best possible support to our students to achieve their academic goals, and to grow and be empowered as human beings, critical thinkers and also socially committed.

Through these times we are living in, we are all facing important challenges. A while ago, I said universities must be transformed, and the introduction of new technologies is an important challenge. I believe the situation generated by the Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated the adaptation process for universities.

The current reality shows that countries were not prepared for the pandemic. But now that this is a reality everybody has had to adapt. Without any doubt this is not easy, especially as health care systems and the economy are not able to adapt quickly during the pandemic. I think we will witness the emergence of a new way of living; understand globalization; understanding society and the economy. The work that UCA has been doing will be important to give appropriate answers to improve this crisis, to build up a new society with human beings at the center. We need to be open to adapt to it without losing the values of democracy, social justice and human dignity.

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Written by Niamh Ollerton
Niamh is Deputy Head of Content at QS (TopMBA.com; topuniversities.com), creating and editing content for an international student audience. Having gained her journalism qualification at the Press Association, London and since written for different international publications, she's now enjoying telling the stories of students, alumni, faculty, entrepreneurs and organizations from across the globe.  

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