UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Joe Cruz does not have a one-track mind. If he did, he wouldn’t be in his third year of doctoral work in Penn State’s Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications.
Reluctant to begin the lifestyle of a doctoral student and the single-focus that comes with it, Cruz learned there was a better way. He found out he could examine several types of media — comic books, film and social media — and study their effects on issues important to him. It was a perfect match for the Puerto Rican-born researcher who always seemed destined to be a communicator.
“Not a doctor or fireman or the usual stuff,” he said. “When I was 6, I knew I was going to be on the radio. I played with cassette recorders. I got a camera when I was 12. That is where my passion (for communications) started.”
When he was 22, Cruz moved to New Jersey and enrolled at Kean University, located in Union, New Jersey, 18 miles west of New York City, to study broadcasting and media.
Cruz graduated in 2012. After graduation, he continued to work for the campus radio station, as well as a nearby bank. There was a time he thought a career in banking was in his future, but his passion for communications was too strong.
He enrolled at Rutgers University to begin work on a master’s degree in communication and information studies. It was there he met Jeffrey Lane, a sociologist in the university’s communications department who was working with poor communities in New York City. Lane studied how Facebook could be used to monitor activities and communications within the city’s poor communities.
“Research having social value caught my eye,” Cruz said. “I saw research as helping society in general, and I wasn’t necessarily aware of that before.”
Cruz’s interest in politics began while he was a high schooler in Puerto Rico. He made several appearances on the radio speaking as the “youth perspective” for one of the national parties. He was 17 and it was his first experience talking on air.
“It’s embarrassing to think about now,” he said with a laugh. “I had no idea what I was talking about.”
Given his political energy, it’s no surprise Cruz brings a community-minded approach to everything he does. He and a friend launched a theater group in his hometown in Puerto Rico. With little to no acting or production experience, they got a sponsorship from a local church and put on shows for five years.
“I needed a creative outlet,” Cruz said. “I never took a theater class, but I enjoy helping and volunteering. There was nothing to do (in my hometown), so we figured, ‘Let’s hold auditions.’”
Even while living in New Jersey, Cruz would frequently fly back to Puerto Rico to help with the productions. The schedule was “fun, but exhausting.” He said he wouldn’t have the energy today, but that’s OK because nearly all his time and focus go toward his doctoral work.
While exploring doctorate programs, Cruz was afraid he’d be forced to pick a discipline and then spend the rest of his life exploring the ins and outs of one narrowly focused topic.
“That’s just not me … it’s not my personality,” he said. “So, I have three areas of study that don’t necessarily overlap.”
Instead, he found Penn State provided a valuable breadth and depth of expertise and opportunities for graduate study.