Published January 26, 2018
Anyone who pays a visit to the Honors College knows that sometimes what happens there can only be described as “an Honors thing.” Ambitious students, primed to exceed expectations, continually push the needle and come together to collaborate, debate and dialogue, fueled by their common commitment to academics and coffee. Lots of coffee.
Now with the arrival of Dalia A. Muller, you can add quenepas to that list.
Quenepas, commonly known as Spanish limes, are small rounded fruits native to Central America and parts of the Caribbean. But perhaps what’s more interesting is how you eat them. Bite open the tough, green peel to reveal a slightly sour orange flesh. Pop the whole thing in your mouth, suck and discard the pit. At least, that’s how Muller explained it recently over a container of quenepas.
Leave it to the new director to bring this kind of unique cultural experience to Honors.
Muller was appointed director of the Honors College and associate dean of undergraduate education last summer. A scholar of Latin American and Caribbean history, her work focuses on the movement of people throughout Cuba, Mexico and the United States — a region she calls the “Gulf World.” Muller is a prominent voice in Latin American and Caribbean scholarship, evidenced by a lengthy CV detailing numerous talks, conference presentations, publications and books, including her most recent work, “Cuban Émigrés and Independence in the Nineteenth-Century Gulf World,” published in 2017 by the University of North Carolina Press as part of its “Envisioning Cuba” series.
Muller’s passion for history began in a ninth-grade classroom with a teacher who, she says, “made history come alive in all of its complexity.” Her quest for a deeper understanding of the past led her to Yale University, where she earned a BA in history, with honors, and then on to the University of California, Berkeley for her MA and PhD. After a time teaching at a small, private university in Los Angeles, she joined the history faculty at UB — an exciting opportunity for someone who had always imagined herself teaching at a large public institution.
While Muller is a new face around the Honors College, students may recognize her as a longtime UB faculty member who served as an associate professor of history and associate director of UB’s Caribbean and Latin/o American Studies (CLAS) program. In her six years with CLAS, she helped to restructure the program and double its size.
“I’ve always loved program building,” she says, adding that she considers the successes in recruitment and retention of master’s students, as well as the program’s expansion, as being among her proudest accomplishments. It was in this capacity that Muller gained experience as an administrator and as a professor, and she points to it as the critical preparation needed for her new role as director of the Honors College.
Tasked with the responsibility of leading the future of Honors, Muller started where she knew best: the past. Her inner researcher came to life as she gathered insights from students, Honors alumni and faculty to gain a broad perspective of their experiences. She conducted extensive research on peer programs, excavated the history of the program itself, and is now identifying model programs to develop a plan that builds upon the unique and stellar offerings already in place. “The Honors College is such an incredible institution, and yet has so much room to grow,” she says.
That growth may first come in building upon a foundation of the Honors College experience: its commitment to civic engagement and experiential learning. “[The freshman Honors Colloquium] is an incredibly strong pillar of the college,” she says. “And there’s so much exciting potential here. One thing I am really keen on is serving the Buffalo community better and serving our students better through that course.”
Driven by Muller’s interest in better serving urban communities, the Honors Colloquium aims to be truly transformative for students while also serving the communities they work with in more meaningful and beneficial ways. She says that can be accomplished by being even more selective and intentional in the relationships with the college’s partners, and really listening to their needs and ensuring that students are properly trained for the experience.
Through this approach, students will be able to triangulate between their research and professional interests, UB’s Communities of Excellence and external community organizations. Drawing these connections is something Muller identifies as the key to showing students how they can accomplish their own academic and career goals while clearly seeing the larger purpose of community engagement. “It would be really powerful to give students this experience [while they’re] young,” she says.
As she steps into her new roles, Muller says she plans to take a deeper dive into the culture of Honors, as well as the university at large. She sees a trend toward integrating undergraduate and graduate education, enabling students to weave together multidisciplinary areas of thinking while cultivating rich experiences through access to higher levels of education. She also is dedicated to inclusive excellence and is committed to working with her staff to diversify the Honors College. “I understand diversity as a tremendous strength that will enhance the experiences of all Honors students,” she says.
Muller hopes the university and the Honors College can continue to show students the rewards that come from embracing new perspectives. “I see the Honors College as a place where high-achieving students of many backgrounds come together in a community founded on the principles of excellence, inclusion, integrity and engagement to pursue their academic goals, cultivate leadership and engage the worlds around them,” she says.
She acknowledges that implementing these broad strokes takes time, but did point to one immediate change. Honors students gather weekly in the Don Schack Student Lounge for coffee, tea and conversation, with each director adding his or her own unique touch to the event. Former director Andy Stott provided a British perspective through his Elevenses tea times. Muller’s take is more global: She is instituting the Honors International Café, which will provide students with a weekly visit to a different country.
Muller says that by serving coffees and teas unique to a specific culture (think Brazilian Cafezinho, Mexican chocolate or Taiwanese bubble tea), accompanied by carefully curated music and slideshows, the café will create a sense of place — and cultural awareness — inside UB. Building on the tradition of this signature gathering, she says this new version will still offer a space to come together, converse, share ideas and, most importantly, walk away with new perspectives.
“Students will leave knowing something more about the world,” she says.
Whether Latin American quenepas will make another appearance inside the Honors College remains to be seen, but with Muller at the helm, the college is sure to offer an abundance of equally fascinating experiences.
What is your favorite place ever in the world?
“San Pedro de Atacama, a town in the northern desert region of Chile. One of the driest places on Earth with incredible landscapes. It challenged fundamental things I thought I understood like space, time and distance. It was otherworldly.”
Where in the world do you need to go?
Machu Picchu and Asia, especially Hong Kong.
Where do you take visitors to eat in Buffalo?
The West Side Bazaar on Grant Street.
What’s next on your reading list?
“Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates.
What’s something interesting in your office?
A small painting of Yemayá, a powerful goddess in Santeria, who in this depiction displays many elements of Afro-Syncretic culture.