The trained social worker and epidemiologist stays focused on helping young people feel seen and preparing the next generation for their futures.
“It is easier to get drugs than it is to get contraceptives.”
That startling statement was made to Velia Leybas Nuño, PhD, MSW, during group interviews with adolescents in an Arizona community as part of a statewide maternal and child health needs assessment.
Dr. Nuño is an assistant professor of practice and program director for the Bachelor of Arts in Wellness and Health Promotion Practice program at the University of Arizona Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health. She is dedicated to helping children and adolescents feel seen and heard, with a special focus on girls in the Latinx community and young people living in rural areas.
“There are tremendous strengths that exist in people no matter where they come from and no matter their background. Unfortunately, these can sometimes be missed,” said Dr. Nuño, who was recently appointed interim assistant dean of diversity, equity and inclusion in the Zuckerman College of Public Health.
“One of the things that has stuck with me the most is that I’ve heard students say that they feel invisible,” she said. “We went to one school in a rural community, and they said that they felt like no one comes out to their community to help them out and they just feel forgotten. They told me that even the books in their libraries are old and outdated, and so they’re getting several different kinds of messages telling them that they’re unimportant and they’re unseen. These comments have made a lasting impression on me.”
An unconventional path to public health
Dr. Nuño was born and raised in Tucson and describes herself as someone who enjoys monsoon season. She obtained a bachelor's degree in psychology from UArizona in 1992 and a master’s in social work from Arizona State University in 1998.
There are tremendous strengths that exist in people no matter where they come from and no matter their background.
Velia Leybas Nuño, PhD, MSW
With her social work training in hand, she worked first for a counseling agency where she supported young people and families and later at the Southern Arizona AIDS Foundation (SAAF). There, she saw the ways in which policy, health education, health care and social factors contributed to the spread of HIV.
“Interestingly, I found myself at several HIV/AIDS conferences, and I’d sit there and listen to experts talk about all the statistics, but I didn’t understand them,” she said. “I thought, ‘This is not working for me,’ and decided that I needed to return to school to get a doctorate in epidemiology so that I could learn what these statistics mean.”
To Dr. Nuño’s disappointment, she was not initially accepted into the doctoral program at the Zuckerman College of Public Health.
“On the first go around, the admissions committee said, ‘I’m not sure you understand what you’re getting yourself into, because you’re coming from social work and this is a very different field.’ I had to prove myself, so at first I went into the epidemiology master’s program,” she explained.
When she finished the master’s program, she felt confident she was in the right place. She went on to graduate in December 2012 with a doctorate in epidemiology with a minor in biostatistics. Dr. Nuño joined the college faculty in January 2013.
“I started teaching adolescent health, which was perfect because my dissertation and my years of work had been with adolescents. So, I moved into a course that I felt comfortable with and I was excited to teach,” she said.
Educating the next generation of health and wellness promoters
The Zuckerman College of Public Health launched the Bachelor of Arts in Wellness and Health Promotion Practice program in August 2021 with Dr. Nuño as program director. The concept for the program was first suggested by the college’s namesake, Mel Zuckerman, who, after years of putting his health on the backburner, experienced a transformational lifestyle change with the help of a fitness coach. He envisioned the program as a means to train students to promote health and wellness to people and communities across the Southwest and globally.
“Mel and other stakeholders emphasized the degree should give students a real world experience in addition to content learned in the classroom,” Dr. Nuño said.
Field-based experiential learning is incorporated into the curriculum in the form of a six-unit faculty supervised practicum for juniors and a three-unit preceptor supervised internship for seniors. “That’s nine units of in the field, supervised work, and our thinking is that will help students be work-ready to start their career once they graduate,” Dr. Nuño said.
Seeking moments of grounding in nature
With so much on her plate, how does someone as busy and focused as Dr. Nuño gain perspective?
“There was a time I was trying to make sense of something,” Dr. Nuño explained. “I talked with a friend and she suggested I go to Sabino Canyon. ‘Just stand there and feel the earth underneath you,’ she told me. So I took her advice and went.
“It was a very grounding experience for me. Sometimes with work, I can get very narrow in my focus and think I have to check this off and check that off. But when I go outside and I see the sky and how big it is and how bright the sun is here in Arizona, it helps me see that there are things that are bigger than whatever I’m dealing with in this very focused life. It helps me breathe deeper and recognize that there’s something greater going on all the time. In that way, being in nature is very grounding to me.”