Claudia Avellaneda came to the United States from her native Colombia with a short-term visa, enough money to live for three months and a desire to learn English.
From that modest start, she has accomplished a lot. She stayed in the U.S. to earn master's and doctoral degrees, published groundbreaking research on public management and built a successful academic career. An associate professor since 2013 and chair of the governance and management faculty group at IU's School of Public and Environmental Affairs, she has vastly expanded the school's research, outreach and institutional partnerships across Latin America.
"What motivates me to do these things is the freedom, the autonomy and the access to resources that SPEA has offered," she said. "This is something I could not find at any other university."
When she arrived at SPEA, it had only one Latin American doctoral student; now it has eight Latin American Ph.D. students and several master's students. She has hosted 14 IU visiting scholars from Latin American countries and served on a dozen student dissertation committees and numerous SPEA and university panels.
Also, she has facilitated SPEA agreements with Brazil's National School of Public Administration and Mexico City's ministry of health. The agreements have included SPEA-provided intensive leadership training for government officials and valuable internships for IU master's students in Brazilian federal agencies.
In November 2017, she helped finalize an agreement between SPEA and the Mexico City Ministry of Health for internships, data sharing and training programs. She intends to formalize agreements with other countries in the region through a program that will be called the SPEA Initiative for Latin American Governance.
Along with the whirlwind of work, she found time last year to become a U.S. citizen, which she counts as one of her most meaningful experiences. She also has a Colombian citizenship.
In her research, her program development work and her guidance of students, Avellaneda takes a hands-on approach that puts a premium on interpersonal relationships.
"Latin people, we tend to be people oriented," she said. "You do people a favor and sooner or later they will pay you back."
Before coming to the U.S., Avellaneda earned a microbiology degree, ran a medical laboratory in Colombia and was a lieutenant in the Colombian army reserves. But she knew very little English. She earned success through hard work, persistence, good fortune and well-timed assistance from friends and strangers.
"I have been quite a lucky woman," she said. "I have had many earth angels who have helped me a lot."
She enrolled in a master's program in political science at Texas A&M University-Kingsville thanks to a donor who funded a scholarship that seemed just for her. Working as a teaching assistant, she initially struggled to communicate with students but in two years was nominated for a top teaching award. In a Ph.D. program at the main Texas A&M campus in College Station, she initially felt like a fish out of water as the only Hispanic woman in a rigorous program with a quantitative approach to political science.
"But after one year, I was a fish in my own tank," she said. "I was excited, motivated, eager to learn. It was a complete change."
With her career boosted by research published in leading public administration journals, Avellaneda spent five years on the faculty at the University of North Carolina Charlotte before moving to IU's School of Public and Environmental Affairs, the top-ranked public affairs school in the nation.
Her research examines the performance of mayors in Latin American countries, including Colombia, Brazil, Honduras, El Salvador, Chile, Ecuador, Guatemala and Mexico. She has shown that mayors with more experience garner more resources from central governments, mayors with more education are more likely to expand educational opportunities, and mayors in bigger cities are more effective in collecting taxes.
Because public records are spotty in many areas, learning about local governance requires intensive field research, tracking down current and former mayors for interviews at their homes, sometimes in remote areas. In one instance, that required traveling by horseback.
Avellaneda, who also chairs the 50-member SPEA governance and management faculty group, admits the demands of research, teaching, travel, mentoring and meetings can be overwhelming. But exceptional support from SPEA colleagues, administrators and staff make it work, she said.
"When everything I ask for is done," she asks, "how am I not going to be happy?"