Meet Our Alums - Dr. Eva Moya - "Do Something Bold"
Published January 25, 2022
UTEP College of Health Sciences
Dr. Eva M. Moya is the interim chair and associate professor of the UTEP Department of Social Work. She received her bachelor’s degree in social work and her doctoral degree in Interdisciplinary Health Sciences from UTEP.
Were you a first-generation college student and graduate?
Yes. I was a nontraditional student; neither of my parents completed their elementary education. They were both very wise, but the idea of going to school was set by my mother. She would always tell me that my responsibility was to go to school. I started school in Mexico and was working at the age of 11 in downtown El Paso at a clothing store. With the money I earned, I would either buy a blouse or dress or save part of it because I wanted to go to school in the United States. I eventually received my bachelor’s degree in Social Work at UTEP, but it was a difficult journey because of inadequate counsel. I changed my major multiple times, and I was a borderline probation student; however, I became an honors student once I found social work.
What sparked your interest in the Interdisciplinary Health Sciences PhD Program, and transitioning into academia from a career in social work?
In the year 2005, I had an "ah-ha" moment. I was the executive director of the U.S. Section of the U.S.-Mexico Border Health Commission. The Commission was going in a different direction. After a great deal of introspection, I realized that if I wanted to make a small dent in the quality of life of individuals, I could spend the rest of my life being a manager or director. I felt the need to do something bold, courageous and focused. Additionally, one of my commissioners asked me at some point, “What are you going to do now, Eva? I think it’s time for you to go back to school.” So, I left a very comfortable position and came to the IHS PhD Program with almost no preparation in research. I realized that was going to be one of the most bold, courageous actions of my professional journey.
I had a wonderful PhD chair who was highly demanding and rigorous, and I went through the program working full time as a senior project coordinator of Project Concern International (PCI Global). With the help of my colleagues and peers, I was able to think outside of my hat as a social worker. It was an incredible four years of discovery and learning, publishing, innovating. It opened the parachute of curiosity, and the parachute hasn’t closed since then.
When did you decide to focus on stigma around tuberculosis as your dissertation topic?
When I entered the program, I wanted to study multiple things – gender inequality, public health – I was all over the place. I had started doing a binational TB Voices and Images Project (Photovoice) in 2005 for the U.S. Mexico Border Health Association agency and was asked by the PCI Mexico country director if I could use those talents to develop an advocacy, communication, and social mobilization initiative and document the experiences of individuals living with tuberculosis at the national level. We completed the first-ever study of stigma around tuberculosis in Mexico and attended international conferences on tuberculosis, eventually winning an international prize. I found my calling, and this became my dissertation topic.
Tell us about the most interesting experience you had as a PhD student.
The number one lesson I learned was when I was asked to do my first Photovoice project. I had little direction. I was in my first semester, and I started my project in Juarez. I had nine participants. The youngest, who was 8, was named Alexis. His family was indigenous, and his mother didn't know how to read and write. Other participants came from Juarez and El Paso and included an international student, an engineer, a PhD, a graduate from the Portuguese program. They were all professionals, and everyone had been touched by tuberculosis. The framing question during one of the weeks of the study was about stigma – specifically, “What is stigma?” Alexis asked if he could come to the front of the room to describe it. He said, "It's very simple, Eva. When you come into a clinic for services and they don't want to look you in the eye or call you out by your first name, only using your last name. When they point at you, you can tell they don't like you. They don't want you there. That is stigma." That was the most dramatic experience of my dissertation and something I remember to this day. From that point on, in my research, I always ask myself, “What is the good that is going to come out of this at the end of the day?” Alexis eventually died from complications of tuberculosis, but he could have been saved with appropriate treatment.
Tell us about your current work. What are some of the skills you learned as a PhD student that you use daily?
Sometimes, I wonder what damage I have done over the last 11 years. It's been a fantastic experience and adventure, writing with groups of colleagues that come from different disciplines; the ability to understand methodological designs; an appreciation for the power of biostatistics and passion for qualitative research and inquiry; creating instruments that are meaningful; putting working groups together from different countries and different fields.
I truly enjoy working with my former doctoral students who are now colleagues in my field.
The trajectories of my work have come out of conversations with my students, including homefree populations. It all started with a conversation between my MSW students and Ray Tullius, executive director of the Opportunity Center for the Homeless (OC). I met Ray when he was with the Rescue Mission of El Paso many years ago. He came to my students with a crisis, after losing almost a million dollars in external funding for the OC, and asked them what they would do. That conversation developed into an intense relationship with the Opportunity Center, with hosting macro classes there, volunteering opportunities, and the HOPE Clinic.
What is the most important piece of advice that you would give to yourself if you could go back in time to your first year as a PhD student?
Don't be afraid of statistics - think of them as a new language, your new best friends.
Be protective of your time; be ready to have highs and lows in life. Understand that if you decide to embark on a PhD, it is a very personal journey; it’s kind of lonely, so think about how to make the most out of it. It is demanding, but it's incredible and doesn't have to be traumatic. Your work really needs to be meaningful. Focus on the things and people that are meaningful to you and give back by publishing. Be kind to yourself. There's never going to be a perfect dissertation. Hang around those who know more than you do and enjoy that. When you graduate, the real journey begins.
For more information about the Interdisciplinary Health Sciences PhD Program, please visit: http://www.utep.edu/chs/ihs.