Ulises Mejias works digitally, collectively, personally to build global ties

In this issue’s Spotlight, meet communication studies faculty member Ulises Mejias, director of the college’s Institute for Global Engagement and coordinator of the integrated media graduate certificate program.

Q. Where were you born and raised?
A. I’m originally from Mexico City … in Mexico the country, not the town just down the road. I always make that clarification. (Laughs.) I grew up there till 18 or so then spent a couple of years in the U.S., then back to Mexico. Then I came back here to the United States for college.

Q. What can you tell us about your higher education?
A. I wanted to study film. I applied to film schools through an organization called the Institute for International Education. Every year, they select 20 students from Mexico and they help them apply for college. I was fortunate enough I was one of those 20. Ithaca College offered me a decent financial aid package. I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in film, photography and visual arts. I thought I would do documentary filmmaking; that was my real passion at the time. I went on to my master’s in organizational communication at Ithaca. Then I went to Columbia University to do my doctoral studies in communication and technology in education.

Q.  What brought you to SUNY Oswego?
A. In 2007, I started applying for jobs, and one of the openings was at SUNY Oswego. I wanted to be in a communication studies department, because I find that there’s a lot of flexibility and interdisciplinarity within communications. I got an interview, I visited, I loved the people, they made me an offer and the rest is history.

Q. What are your teaching interests?
A. They hired me basically to do everything related to new media. I got to develop courses and I could teach whatever I wanted. I got to develop the course on “Social Networks and the Web,” “Technology and Culture,” “Video Game Theory and Analysis”—I still teach all of those on a regular basis. Then (in 2011) we started the integrated media graduate certificate in collaboration with people like David Vampola (computer science) and Cara Brewer Thompson (art) and, of course, Fritz Messere (former School of Communication Media and the Arts dean). I ended up sort of taking ownership of that.

Q. In a nutshell, what is integrated media?
A. We’re used to thinking of radio or television or even print journalism as separate media. With the Internet, everything got combined, mixed into this hybrid digital medium. Integrated media looks at how we use each medium separately and then what new opportunities or formats are created when we combine them, the possibilities that arise when we bring all of them together. We want to combine the theory and the practical. We continue to make tweaks to the program based on student feedback. We try to understand topics like why things go viral, we teach students how to develop all sorts of digital formats, how to write for the web, how to produce video and audio for the web. One of the biggest components of the curriculum is to show people how to collect, visualize and analyze data from digital social networks, so that you can use knowledge about social networks to promote an idea, to get an idea seen by as many people as possible and get them involved helping disseminate that idea.

Q.  How did you get involved with the Institute for Global Engagement?
A. I was a part of it pretty much from its inception. Being an international faculty, and having been an international student—obviously those issues are always near and close to my heart. And, of course, my research: We don’t call the Internet the World Wide Web for nothing; it is a global phenomenon. You need to study how it is impacting societies across the globe. As director now, I coordinate the efforts of faculty who are passionate about global engagement. It’s by no means a one-man job. For instance, we have a Cultural Committee that has been working very hard to start an “international year of” experience, which we’re launching in the fall with Brazil.

Q. What are your current research interests?
A. My book (“Off the Network: Disrupting the Digital World”) came out in 2013, and I’m continuing some of that work. My field really is critical Internet studies. I just started a second book project, co-authoring with Nick Couldry, chair of the communication studies department at the London School of Economics.

Q. Have you traveled widely for academics?
A. I’ve had the opportunity, for instance, during my sabbatical, to teach in India. For the past three years, I’ve had the opportunity to teach in the summer in St. Petersburg, Russia. I’m in the process of finishing an article I co-wrote with one of my students in Russia about the use of social media in disinformation. I’ve also been asked to give (conference) keynotes in Australia and the Netherlands.

Q. What do you think about SUNY Oswego students?
A. We are increasingly an international community. By and large, we have so many students who are passionate about understanding the world and who “get” that when they go out in the workforce, they need to have an understanding of how the world operates. I think about difference as a method of learning. It’s an encounter with other ideas, with other people that we’re not familiar with. We are very fortunate that so many people are aligned with the IGE mission and goal to bring the world to SUNY Oswego.

Q.  What do you think about the faculty you’ve encountered at SUNY Oswego?
A. I feel honored to work with faculty of this caliber. I think the faculty we’re attracting are really amazing. We’re able to attract and retain people of a very international, global profile—real scholars who have a commitment not only to their school but to research. The profile of the college is rising, and I think if I were a student in this day and age, I would feel really proud and I would try to really take advantage of all our opportunities, because we offer so much.

Q. What can you tell us about your off-campus life?
A. I live in Ithaca. I’ve been living there since 1990. My wife, Asma Barlas, teaches at Ithaca College. It’s really home for us. At the same time, I feel fortunate that Oswego has become a satellite community for me. I really enjoy spending time here and I have developed a community here, as well. I feel really connected to the region. I do a lot of driving the roads! (Laughs.) It’s made me really appreciate and love this part of the state.

Q. What are some of your off-the-job interests?
A. Photography’s the one area—I still like to take photographs. As someone in academia, I feel really blessed that my work is also my passion. On my days off, as a sort of recreational activity, I really enjoy reading and writing and having interesting conversations. My wife is a scholar of international reputation. Her area is Islamic studies. It is because of her that I’ve gotten to see large parts of the world, and because of her that I got interested in academia as a way of life—not just the teaching part of it, but the scholarship and the service part of it. She’s a crucial part of loving what I do.