By Dani Moritz-Long
Born and raised in Trinidad — an island famous for its diverse array of ethnicities, religions and cultures — Humanities Professor Vishma Kunu grew up embracing a slew of different ideologies. Her family, for example, actively practiced Hinduism and celebrated Christmas, a popular tradition among most of Trinidad’s residents. They also commemorated Eid al-Fitr (the holiday formally marking the completion of Ramadan) with their Muslim neighbor. Upon moving to New York at age 11, Vishma’s exposure to diversity continued — further cementing her appreciation for those of all walks of life — and, at Queens College, Vishma took a course in Buddhism that would ultimately shape her career.
“I feel like the field chose me,” Vishma said of her passion for religion and humanities.
Ultimately, Vishma’s experience and passion would lead her to embrace the world of academia. To date, her resume includes a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and religion, masters’ degrees in religion and Buddhist studies and a doctorate in religion. She’s taught at several institutions and first began teaching at Valencia as a part-time faculty member on Osceola Campus in 2006. She accepted her full-time role on West Campus in 2014, and she’s now preparing to move to the Downtown Campus as one of the inaugural faculty welcoming the first class of Downtown Campus students in the fall.
Speaking about her passion for teaching, Vishma describes the value students experience in studying Humanities.
“It allows students to see the world through a different lens,” she said. “It opens things up in a way that wasn’t available to them before.”
In particular, she says, she finds her religion courses to be especially transformative.
“Because religion is my area of specialization at the graduate level, I am especially excited about teaching religion courses,” Vishma explained. “When my students leave my religion classes, they are more equipped to speak confidently and knowledgeably about a range of world religions. I want my students to understand not only historical and cultural contexts [for religions], but also to understand the diverse communities they live in.”
Fortunately, understanding often leads to appreciation — which is an important outcome in today’s often hostile and decisive world.
“There are many misconceptions and negative representations in the media of some religions,” Vishma explained. “I have students who don’t know the difference between Islam and Sikhism or Hinduism and Islam. So, teaching world religions is a really great opportunity to help students navigate those worlds that can seem very foreign at times.”
Of course, some students come to class prepared to open their minds to new ideas, while others struggle to see other religions outside of the framework of their own perceptions and experiences. This, Vishma explains, is why she places immense focus and energy into creating a hospitable, inclusive environment that invites students to respectfully ask open and honest questions while engaging in what can be difficult dialogue.
Looking to the future, Vishma is incredibly excited and proud to offer a new course later this spring, called Buddhism: Thought, Practice and Art (REL 2930). The course, which is 10-week, mixed-mode course to be offered in the latter part of the spring semester, is the result of two decades of specialization and study. Instead of relying on a textbook, Vishma says the course is truly aligned with her vision and carefully designed to encourage students to explore Buddhism’s 2,500-year-old roots and its contextual relevance inside and outside of India.
“It’s my dream course,” Vishma explained.
As mentioned above, Vishma is also eagerly preparing to move downtown, although she knows she’ll deeply miss working in such close proximity to the West Campus family. Nonetheless, she says, working at West Campus’ new sister campus in downtown Orlando is the perfect opportunity to expand West Campus’ mission and serve a new population of Valencia students alongside a team of equally dedicated faculty and staff.
Speaking of the Downtown Campus team, Vishma says, “During the last year, we’ve been able to learn more about each others’ personalities and academic strengths and how we can work together on different projects downtown. Valencia could not have chosen better in terms of putting together a team, which I could not have foreseen at the time I interviewed for the job and took the leap. It’s exciting to be a part of such a sharp and driven team of professionals.”
Ana Caldero Figueroa, dean, arts and humanities, admits seeing Vishma transition to the Downtown Campus won’t be easy, but she knows Vishma’s inclusive nature and commitment to serving our students will make her an incredible and important asset at the new campus.
“Vishma is an effective educator,” Ana said. “She is very professional and conducts herself with integrity. She is eager to work with the downtown community. I don’t have any doubts she will be able to engage and energize a community of learners with her challenging classes. She gives students the world! The Arts and Humanities department will miss her tremendously, but I would not be an effective leader if I don’t inspire and motivate faculty to follow their passions.”
Know of someone who embodies one of Valencia’s values (learning, people, diversity, access or integrity), who has been an employee for at least one year? Send the colleague’s name to us at The_Grove@valenciacollege.edu. He or she might be one of our featured colleagues, subject to supervisor’s approval.