Reporting and writing by Nahla Bendefaa, photos by Ilenia Pezzaniti
“Definitely not the weather.”
After three weeks of looking at Akron blanketed in snow, that’s Juan Contreras’s first thought upon being asked why he chose this corner of Northeast Ohio as a place to live.
“Mexico is always gonna be home in many ways, but I also have to say that Akron has become my new home. A home that embraced me,” Juan says. “We’re not a city that is exempt from problems but we have an amazing community. That’s one of the things that makes me happiest to call Akron my home.”
A Mexico City native, Juan found himself in Akron 16 years ago when he first enrolled in the University of Akron’s M.A. in Communication Studies program.
Juan initially wanted to work in the television industry. However, those plans changed once Juan received his degree and got the opportunity to start teaching at UA, Stark State Community College and Walsh University. He is currently serving as a professor of practice at the University of Akron and the general manager of UA’s student-run television station, ZTV.
“Honestly, I never even considered [teaching]. I tend to be more of an introvert. So when my department chair came to me and said, ‘you’re not gonna work in the lab anymore, I need you to teach a class,’ I was like, ‘I don’t know about that. I don’t know if I’m the right person for this,’” Juan says. “But then within two or three weeks of teaching, I honestly fell in love with teaching and decided to make a career change.”
Juan aspires to provide space in his classroom for students to explore their curiosity.
“I like to invest in the students. I like to get to know the students,” Juan says, “I can’t teach uniformly. I mean obviously, there are times when I lecture, and lecturing is very uniform. But I also have to know what’s driving my students. Is there a specific thing that is a dream that they want to accomplish?”
This inclination to support students in all aspects of their educational journey also includes looking out for those that sometimes go to college with little to no guidance.
“I also make it my job to sit down with students and say, ‘what is it that you want?’ and when they tell me ‘I have no idea,’ then my answer is, ‘if you want, we are in an environment where we can sort of explore the answer to that question,” Juan says. “I try to motivate all students, to say, ‘this is your place to try and figure out what you want to do.’”
Before the pandemic, Juan had taught online courses a handful of times. While that made the technical aspect of the transition smoother, virtual instruction has hindered his ability to connect with students.
“I use the energy of the classroom to help me in my style of teaching. I like to read people and read people’s faces as I am talking about something,” Juan says. “Ever since I started teaching online, I feel like I lose a little bit of that, especially since my courses tend to be asynchronous. With COVID, I’ve had to increase the amount of teaching online, but [I try to] be in constant communication with my students. I try to always message them and check in. It turns things more personal.”
A self-proclaimed Star Wars geek, Juan teaches the popular Films of Star Wars course at the University of Akron. First offered in the summer of 2016, the course addresses film history, technological developments and special effects in cinema, social justice themes across the series and the role contextual influences play in storytelling.
“Star Wars is really interesting because it’s produced over 40 years. We can see women, gender, and race representation in the ‘70s, ‘80s, at the turn of the 21st century, and then 20 years after that,” Juan says. “I always thought you could do an interesting class with science fiction because it’s sort of like a modern version of mythology… an interesting way to analyze what the cultural values are like.”
In his role as the general manager of ZTV, Juan oversees the daily happenings in the newsroom. This includes mentoring students and helping them prepare for careers in broadcasting and media. The station has won nine regional Emmy awards, six under his leadership.
“I really enjoy spending time at the station because students are always here and it’s not a classroom when they’re here. They’re here to work on projects and so because there is no formality of the classroom between them, it gives me the opportunity to talk to them,” says Juan. “I’m definitely looking forward to at least that aspect of going back to normal, post-pandemic.”
Beyond the classroom, Juan serves as vice president of Global Ties Akron, a local non-profit he was introduced to during orientation week when he first arrived in Akron. Global Ties Akron runs education, citizen diplomacy and cultural exchange programs, some of which are sponsored by the State Department or the Library of Congress. The organization coordinates things like host family placements to assist visitors during their stays in Akron.
“It’s a great way to give back to your community in some way, because these exchanges ultimately make your community stronger, but they also make communities in other parts of the world stronger,” Juan says. Nahla Bendefaa is a writer, photographer, and content creator from Akron, Ohio by way of Kenitra, Morocco. She enjoys rewatching Friday Night Lights, painting, and confusing Spotify’s algorithm while making her way through a seemingly never-ending tea collection.