Former VCU History Student Miguel Torres Yunda: Unafraid and Unstoppable

Nov. 10, 2022

Author: Nyah Graham

VCU history student Nyah Graham chatted with former VCU history student Miguel Torres Yunda to learn about his journey at VCU, his pursuit of a Ph.D. and his future plans.

Miguel Torres Yunda

Who are the VCU history professors who inspired you the most and why?

I was a transfer student to VCU. I came after spending two years at George Mason, and the first history class I took was with Dr. Hafez. Her classes are among the favorites that I have ever taken. She took me outside of the region of my general knowledge, I’m from Colombia, and she teaches Ottoman history. She showed me the different kinds of books and sources that we can use for learning about history, particularly historical novels, and how they can teach us about how audiences were able to perceive the world around them. She also encouraged me to look into my research interests and tie them into the lessons she was teaching, like connecting Jewish communities pushed out of Iberia to the kingdoms of Spain and then to the Ottoman Empire and the Netherlands, which eventually ended up in Latin America.

The second professor, I would say, is Dr. Espinoza. He was the first professor I had that taught a history course that reminded me of myself. He encouraged me to apply to graduate school, and I would talk to him after class; almost every day. He guided me through applying, and he told me which schools were going to be the best. I couldn’t apply to all of them, but I did apply to some of them, and the school that I am at now, he did encourage me to apply for the Ph.D. program; now I’m here. His classes also showed me how Latin American History was taught at Universities. Before him, I had only taken classes focused on Colonial history, as opposed to the nuances of history in that region and modern history. I found that formative to my goals and desires on what I wanted to research in the future. If it weren’t for Dr. Hafez and Dr. Espinoza I don’t think I would have applied to a graduate school in a history course, especially because I was a dual major. 

Were there any obstacles you had to overcome while at VCU, and if so, how did you overcome them?

The reason that I transferred to VCU was that my parents were leaving the country. My stepdad got a new job, they were leaving the country, and I couldn’t afford rent in Northern Virginia. So, I looked around Virginia to find a place to stay in the states with my friends. Because they were leaving the country, I didn’t see any educational prospects for myself where they were going. The main thing I had to overcome was living alone without parental support. That was hard; I went from being in a multi-generational Latino home to being in an apartment with two Americans, which was a different transition, having to live without my family. Without their financial and emotional support, it was difficult. I overcame it by finding my own little community. Finding a little group that could support me; unconditionally as any parent would. Other than that, I loved Richmond, and I miss it. 

What were the deciding factors for pursuing your M.A., and now your Ph.D.?

This ties into the first question. As a student in the B.S. for psychology and B.A. for history, I had access to many professors. I tried to volunteer and interact with professors from Psychology, but they had so many students that they didn’t have the time to invest in one particular student. That wasn’t the case in the History Department as I said with Dr. Espinoza, I would talk with him after every single class, and I would walk with him to the bus station. The invested time into hearing me, not just in classes, but taking the time to talk to me about what grad school is. Discussing what you could do with that degree beyond becoming a professor was a deciding factor, and another factor was my wife’s encouraging me to apply to graduate school. She pushed me to do it, even if it was something that wasn’t necessarily so lucrative. She encouraged me to apply to places that I didn’t think I could get into, but then I did get in. I got my masters at Georgetown; in applying, I got into NYU, Colombia, and other cool places. For the Ph.D. it’s a similar story– a professor encouraged me at Georgetown, if it wasn’t for her, I would have probably stayed in D.C. and tried to get a job at some archive or the Library of Congress. Ultimately, it’s been individuals who have shown me what I can do and what is possible. Because a lot of the time, I couldn’t see it in myself.

What do you plan to do once you become Dr. Torres Yunda?

I’m not 100% sure. Being in a graduate program is being exposed to so many aspects of being in a history department and the little things which are required of you. There are a few that I’m not too on board with. So, I would like to be a professor, which would be great. But, I guess the dream job would be to go back to D.C., apply for a job at the Library of Congress, and work as a research librarian, maybe in the Hispanic Reading Room. You get researchers from all over the world asking: “Oh, I would like some help finding this particular source.” So, for example, I did my masters thesis on the Amazon, and I needed to find Portuguese sources, particularly primary sources. And I emailed a particular individual in the Library of Congress, and a week later they came back with a list of books, all in Portuguese and Spanish, with incredible information, some available online. I love that aspect of being a history professional, like the investigation and detective work of finding information and providing it to people. So, that would be a dream job. I also find that I enjoy teaching undergraduates. I found a reflection of Dr. Espinoza in me when students stop me after class and ask: “Hey, how did you get there” and “Where are you from?”.

What kind of advice would you give VCU history students while they are here and upon graduation?

While at VCU, communicate with your professors. Email them, talk with them, and go to their office hours. I know office hours can be intimidating, and you might not want to go. They’re very nice people and want to help you, that’s why they have office hours. For the graduation requirement of writing a capstone paper or doing the internship, I would say do what my roommate did: do both. It sounds crazy. He did an internship at Maymont, and he did a research paper. I only did an internship, which I thought was cool. I did mine at Hollywood Cemetery, and being able to do both shows you what graduate school is going to be like. It’s writing papers and research. I got the research portion; however, that left me a bit unprepared for the 20-page research papers. If you’re invested in graduate school, do both; and if you’re not, take the internship. It is going to be different from the other things you’d learn in the classroom. I got to work with 140-year-old burial records and gained access to the Virginia Museum of Culture and History archives. That’s what I love about it.

Beyond that, when looking into graduate school: email professors at schools to which you are considering applying. Ask them questions about the culture of the university, how the university can help you with research, and the resources available to graduate students. Questions like, are they going to be there when you are there, and are there other professors who can help you with your goals? You should also reach out to any current graduate students at the universities. I know I did not lie to anyone in my own masters program when others reached out to me. I was also a part of the leadership team in my department, and I told them the truth about what it was like to be there. 

Invest your time in learning a language. As a native Spanish speaker, I had a leg up in that department, especially because I am interested in researching Latin America. It made me more competitive, but also I had the opportunity to learn Italian while I was at VCU. I also took Portuguese at Georgetown – another aspect of why I chose Georgetown. They had the resource of providing all their graduate students with a scholarship to learn another language. You’d get three semesters of another language, completely covered by the graduate school. Learning those other languages makes you extremely competitive in the application process. I got to put down that I could speak and read Portuguese. So, invest your time in that. If you’re unable to, Duolingo is a great place to start. I'm planning on learning an Indigenous language for my future research. Learning another language helps you understand the culture which you are studying. For example, if you’re researching the Amazon, you shouldn’t only know a colonial language.

And lastly, look beyond History departments for your goals. I’ve met many individuals from different departments, such as the Latin American studies, Jewish studies, and European studies, that can access similar education that historians can while being better funded. Look for the money; don’t be in debt. 

VCU is calling itself the “Uncommon” university - showcasing its uniqueness amongst the other Richmond-area universities. As an alum of VCU, what would you describe as your “un” word? 

Unafraid; and Unstoppable.

Unafraid: Leaving VCU feeling like I became somewhere between a teenager and an adult, not feeling that fear of failure. Because my time in Richmond prepared me for the work but prepared me to deal with any setbacks. 

Unstoppable: After being on my own, I felt I was much more capable of pushing forward than I thought. Having finished my degree at VCU without any setbacks, with a better GPA than when I was at my previous institution, an internship under my belt, and an elementary understanding of Italian, made me feel like I was an unstoppable force.