Nerisha Padilla Cruz '18 

Mercy Alumna Pursues Ph.D. to Continue Study of Spanish and Educate Next Generation of Students

The number of Spanish majors at Mercy College may be small, but they are taking big strides after graduation.


Take Nerisha Padilla Cruz ’18, for example.

A native of Puerto Rico, Padilla Cruz moved to New York City and enrolled in Mercy with the intention of completing a degree in social work. But after taking and loving a Spanish class, she decided to instead pursue a degree in Spanish to learn more about the culture and literature.

Now, she is on the road to becoming a Spanish professor with a concentration in literature from Latin America and the Caribbean.

Padilla Cruz has finished her first year in a fully funded Ph.D. program at University at Albany – SUNY. Her goal is to share her knowledge with students and show them that Spanish is not just another language, but that it’s also another way to see the world and connect with other cultures.

A native Spanish speaker who once had limited knowledge of the English language, Padilla Cruz credits her sister, who also attended Mercy College, with introducing her to the school. After enrolling, Padilla Cruz soon discovered Mercy was a very welcoming place.

Padilla Cruz realized she wanted to major in Spanish and someday become a professor as she was browsing the web page for Mercy’s Modern Foreign Languages Program. She saw that “teacher” was one of the career options listed for Spanish degree majors. She said that Professors Alan Hartman, Elise Arnold-Levene and Luis Garcia were key components of her success at Mercy. “They helped me when I decided that I wanted to go to graduate school and gave me the support and guidance I needed through the whole process.”

Assistant Professor Hartman, who is also the program director for Mercy’s Modern Foreign Languages Program, knew Padilla Cruz was destined for great things. “Nerisha was a top student in the Spanish major who clearly excelled in her studies,” he said. “She was often the first student to complete assignments and had a natural talent for reading comprehension and cultural literacy. As such, I was eager to work with her to channel her talent and skill towards a doctoral program where I knew she would be appropriately challenged yet also find great success.”

According to Hartman, about 15 to 20 Mercy students choose to major in Spanish annually and around 85 percent of those students are heritage or native speakers of Spanish. He said Spanish majors are often interested in furthering their academic study.

“[They] are very eager to continue their studies and become professionals in the field. They often have a passion and aptitude for learning about Hispanic literature, culture and history,” Hartman noted. “As a result, I work with them to see where their skills and abilities would be best served in the professional sphere. Students may pursue the professions of schoolteacher, college professor, international relations professional, or something else.”

Hartman said that while Spanish majors are encouraged to study abroad, it is not always possible. To address this issue, Hartman created an internship program for Mercy students at the Hispanic Society of America. Interns learn about Hispanic art, history, literature and culture, and are given deeper insight into their area of study. Padilla Cruz took advantage of this program, which elevated her from her peers.

“Nerisha was just a couple of years older than the typical college student. Her life experience and maturity helped her succeed in Hispanic Studies,” Hartman said. “She had the intellect, courage and diligence to excel in her classes, become an intern at the Hispanic Society of America, spend several months preparing an excellent writing sample for her doctoral application. Most notably, she achieved her difficult goal of receiving funding to pursue a Ph.D. program in Spanish immediately after undergraduate graduation.”

Padilla Cruz admitted it was surprising to learn she had received the funding to pursue a Ph.D.

“It’s really competitive and I can’t believe I was as among the new students that received funding,” she mentioned. “It doesn’t just cover my tuition – it gives me the opportunity to work as a teaching assistant in a basic Spanish class for undergraduate students. Also, receiving the funding eased my mind about how I was going to afford graduate school. It allowed me to focus more on my studies and gave me the motivation to continue.”

Padilla Cruz’s success in Albany can be attributed to the solid foundation she received at Mercy, which gave her the tools and discipline to pursue her graduate studies.

“The classes at Mercy helped prepare me for what is expected as a graduate student and helped me develop my critical thinking skills and how to prepare essays and presentations,” she said. “Also, I no longer fear speaking in front of other people. This has made me feel more confident and has allowed me to participate in conferences where I have the opportunity to expose my research to a broader community.”

Hartman noted that Padilla Cruz is one of many Spanish program alumni who are continuing or who have continued their Spanish studies. For example, Dianey Lujan ’19 will begin a fully funded teaching fellowship at the University of Connecticut as she pursues her master’s degree; Dennis Di Iorio and Greilyn Justo Soto have worked on master’s degrees in Spanish from Middlebury College; and Paola Monteros-Freeman received her master’s degree from the University of Virginia and is continuing her education as a fully-funded Ph.D. student.

“This is an enormous percentage of Spanish program students going on to graduate school at very well-known and prestigious universities,” said Hartman.

Although he is proud of all his alumni, Hartman is particularly excited about Padilla Cruz and her future after reconnecting with her during a recent visit to Albany.

“Seeing our alumna find success after graduation and embark on such an ambitious yet rewarding endeavor made me the happiest and proudest that I have been in my fifteen-year career,” he mentioned. “I am thrilled to know that Nerisha is pursuing her dream, and I very much look forward to her becoming a colleague as a professor of Spanish!”