Establishing a career centered on history was what Cristina Viera aimed for when she started her college journey.
After commencing a career in education, she transitioned to a civilian position with the Department of Defense (DoD). During her 12 years with the DoD, Viera realized teaching was her true calling. She later enrolled in USF's Curriculum and Instruction Ph.D. program with a concentration in Social Science Education—a program that's helping her take a significant step towards achieving her academic and professional goals.
Cristina Viera was determined to use her love for history as part of her career.
Influenced by her education-driven father, Viera grew up watching documentaries that ranged from Jacque Costeau’s oceanographic explorations to stories of the Cuban Revolution.
She was the first in her family to go to college. When it was time for Viera to declare a major at Florida International University (FIU), she didn’t hesitate in choosing history, though at the time, she wasn’t sure where it would take her.
“I remember (my father) asking me: What are you going to do with that?” Viera recalls. “I would always say, ‘Dad, I’ll figure it out.’”
After graduating with a bachelor of arts degree from FIU, Viera fell in love with the idea of teaching and went on to earn a master of science degree in social science education from Nova Southeastern University. Once she began teaching high school, Viera returned to FIU to pursue a master of arts in history. Upon completion of the program, she accepted an analyst position with the DoD in Washington, D.C.
It was through this experience Viera realized her true career goals.
“In those 12 years of working for the DoD, I really missed teaching,” Viera said. “It was always my intent to return.”
Viera’s spouse, a Colonel with the United States Air Force, received orders to MacDill AFB, Tampa in 2016. With the support of her family, Viera returned to education and began teaching 10th grade World History at Bell Creek Academy in Riverview, FL.
Facilitating a classroom environment where her students can explore human experiences, understand the world they live in, and develop agency motivated Viera to learn more about theories and practices within social science education, which in turn, led her to pursue a doctoral degree at USF.
Viera met with Dr. Bárbara Cruz, a social science education professor in USF’s College of Education who encouraged her to enroll in the program.
“Dr. Cruz planted the seed,” Viera said. “Going for a Ph.D. was something that was always lingering in my mind and there were plenty of opportunities to do so when I was in Washington D.C., but what finally drew me to apply in all honesty was the supportive, amazing faculty in the USF program.”
Since beginning her doctoral studies, Viera has taken on multiple roles within the program. After accepting a position as an adjunct professor and a full-time research assistant, Viera began teaching the Multicultural and Global Perspectives in Education and Practicum courses. During these classes, Viera says, pre-service teachers learn the importance of understanding students’ backgrounds and educational needs in order to create an inclusive environment.
“Pre-service teachers don’t always have the experience of working with diverse populations and if you don’t have that it can be intimidating to enter a classroom,” Viera said. “I make a difference when I get my pre-service teachers to understand the richness of diversity, to understand that their students have lived through experiences that contribute to the social studies learning environment.”
As a result of a collaboration between social science education faculty and Hillsborough County Public Schools district management, Viera was offered the chance to recreate the high school Latin American history course, an opportunity that enabled her to place more emphasis on cultural history.
“When you go through history courses, especially in secondary education, the curriculum is primarily focused on the history of power. This creates an exclusive version of history because you’re highlighting a very elite, select people.” Viera said, “I jumped on the opportunity so I can emphasize the cultural side of history and focus on, for example, Afro-Cubans and how they contributed towards the independence of Cuba.”
At USF’s Contemporary Art Museum, Viera serves as a curriculum developer for the InsideART teacher professional development program, an arts-based learning and visual literacy project that fuses contemporary art and social studies with the purpose of examining and discussing domestic and international political, social, cultural, economic, and environmental issues. Several of the unique features of the program offer secondary education teachers the opportunity to explore new and innovative arts-based pedagogical strategies.
Viera develops lesson plans for educators that reflect an artist’s ideas and perspective on a current issue. Her experience led her to co-present the InsideART program at the University of Alicante in Spain and at the Florida Council for the Social Studies annual conference.
“In a world where content is pre-packaged and delivered to teachers, people are genuinely interested in how we can create more inclusive curriculum,” Viera said. “We work tirelessly to transform the educational experience in InsideART specifically for teachers, so they could bring that into their classrooms.”
Viera’s time at USF has been rewarding, and not just for her, but also for the various colleagues and professors she interacts with every day. When speaking about Viera’s accomplishments, Dr. Cruz shared the distinguishable characteristics that have driven Viera towards the road of success.
“Cristina is simply one of the most dedicated, hardest working, committed educators I have had the pleasure to work with,” Dr. Cruz said. “She is a natural trouble-shooter who solves problems and resolves issues with professionalism and grace. I could not be prouder to have her as my doctoral student and research assistant.”
With plans to graduate in the spring of 2021, Viera aspires to become a college professor and continue her work in multicultural education with a focus on inclusive curriculum for LGBTQ and Latinx students. Her advice for individuals who plan to pursue a career in social science education is to be deliberate in all they do.
“Social science education is the field where we help youth understand the past, the present, and possibilities of the future,” Viera said. “There’s an enormous responsibility that comes with that. Find your passion in the field and commit to it.”
USF's Social Science Education Program prepares students for careers as social studies teachers, instructional leaders, curriculum designers, and researchers. Visit our program website to learn more.