Victoria Solis, MPH, guided by family's legacy of community service in pursuit of public health
Solis was inspired by her parents and teachers to pursue a career where she could combine her passions for public health, community service and education.
For Victoria Solis her master’s degree in public health was a culmination of growing up with a legacy of family service, shaped by life in two different countries, and a desire to change the future of public health for vulnerable communities.
“I really like to serve my community,” Solis said. “That’s something that I’ve learned to appreciate growing up, knowing that a lot of my community supported me in different ways along the way. I saw public health as an opportunity to give back and help my community grow and see the impact, for not just one individual, but the community as a whole.”
Solis graduated from UTHealth Houston School of Public Health in San Antonio in December 2022 with a master’s in public health promotion and behavioral science. She began her classes right as the pandemic was starting, and when everything about education was beginning to shift, as institutions pivoted to exclusively online learning.
Despite the challenges of getting a degree during the pandemic, Solis flourished at the school of public health, making friends and staying connected to the school even while social distancing. In 2021 when classes began to return to in-person learning, Solis joined the student association and eventually found herself taking over as president during her last year at the school.
Solis said public health is a field she was drawn to in part because she was brought up with a long legacy of community service in her family. Until she was 10 years old, Solis said she lived a fairly rural, small-town life in Zacatecas, Mexico. There she was surrounded by her large extended family and saw her grandmother and mother constantly finding ways to reach out and help the vulnerable in their community.
“I felt that sense of belonging, that sense of collaboration, that sense of support in Zacatecas,” Solis said. “My mom was an advocate for her community and served by participating in so many community events along with her family.”
When her dad’s job took her family across the border to the small town of Del Rio, Texas, going to an American public school meant learning a new language, which would have been a much bigger challenge for Solis if not for the school teachers who went out of their way to help her. They made such an impression on her that Solis decided early on that she wanted to get an education degree and become a teacher.
“Seeing how many people were able to help me, seeing their dedication, their assistance overall was very impactful,” Solis said. “It made a big difference for me, because if it wasn’t for them I wouldn’t be here.”
But Solis said it was during her required health class in high school that she began to realize how powerful health education could be as she discovered information that could help her diabetic dad and her grandmother, who had a history of heart problems.
Initially, Solis said, because of her interest in eating healthy and living an active life, she decided to pursue a degree in nutrition at UTSA, but quickly realized her true love was health education and switched her major. After completing her degree in health science with a concentration in community health in 2018, Solis looked for an opportunity to use her new degree and signed up to serve with AmeriCorps.
Solis served for two years with AmeriCorps, one year in Tacoma, Washington, and the second year back home in San Antonio, in low-income communities assisting with after-school programs. She said the experience was eye-opening for her.
“These experiences helped me realize there’s a lot of health disparities, not just in health, but in the very basic foundations that help individuals determine their health,” Solis said. “It helped me understand what I want to focus on, which is health equity and closing those gaps and making sure that individuals have access to their very basic needs, such as education, nutrition, a healthy environment, security, and sometimes things that can be overlooked, such as a sense of belonging.”
After discovering her passion for public health education, Solis quickly realized she wasn’t totally prepared for that career yet.
“I feel like my undergrad gave me the necessary tools that I was able to apply in this master’s program and in the work I have done so far, but it was very basic, and I felt like I needed a program that was more inclusive and diverse,” Solis said. “I realized I needed to learn more about the integrative side and the intersectionality within public health, and felt like a master’s in health promotion and behavioral science would help me understand it better.”
With the pandemic raging, Solis signed up for classes starting in the fall of 2020 at the UTHealth Houston School of Public Health in San Antonio.
“One of the things that pushed me to grad school was the COVID-19 situation, because I knew it would be tough to find a job in this field during the pandemic, and I realized what better way to spend this time while we’re at home than adding to my education?”
Solis said pursuing a PhD in the future is still on the table, as she is interested in doing more research, but says she would like to have a little more working experience to narrow down what topic she wants to research.
For now, she’s happy to have just landed a new position right where she’s already been working for the past year, at the UTHealth Houston School of Public Health in San Antonio, as a data collector for a research project with Jack Tsai, PhD, professor and regional dean in San Antonio.
Even though she will stay connected to the school with her new job, as Solis moves on to the professional world, she said she takes with her many good memories of her time as a student at the school of public health.
“It’s hard to pick just one,” she said, “But my favorite thing about being part of this program is all the great friendships and all of the professional connections that I was able to make with students, faculty, staff and with various community partners. It’s something that I know I will take with me wherever I go.
“The school’s positive and supportive environment is also something I will always appreciate. It feels like every conversation I’ve had these past two years was a learning experience for me. It pushed me to learn something new every day about myself, my career goals and my vision as a health professional.”