Five Questions with Jessica Southwell and Naya Villarreal

Jessica Southwell and Naya Villarreal collect public health stories from North Carolina and abroad.


Naya (left) and Jessica co-host a monthly podcast about public health.

Naya (left) and Jessica co-host a monthly podcast about public health.

Names: Jessica Southwell and Naya Villarreal
Positions: Jessica is a research associate with the North Carolina Institute for Public Health; Naya is the program coordinator for the Gillings Global GatewayTM.
Years at Gillings:
Jessica has been in her role for three years; Naya, for 3.5.


What I do at Gillings (and why I love it):

Jessica: I support public health law research and coordinate student engagement activities. That means opportunities like the Gillings PHield trips and also master’s practica, when students take what they’ve learned in the classroom out into the community. I’m hoping we can offer more of those programs over time.

Naya: Her job makes my job easier! My main goal is to promote global public health in terms of research, service and practice that our students and faculty are doing. We’ve found that since Jessica’s job with the Institute is to bring all aspects of public health together for N.C., and my job is to accomplish that same task on a global scale, we both do a lot of thinking about how different departments at Gillings can collaborate. Together, we try to tell the whole story of the School.


Editor’s note: This brings us to an exciting announcement – Jessica and Naya recently launched a new podcast called “Public Health Behind the Scenes.” Through conversations with students and experts from the Gillings School’s community, the show explores the public health issues that affect our lives. It already has been downloaded more than 2,000 times!

Find the first four episodes here: Now, back to the interview…


My first job was:

Naya: In high school, I was a referee for an elementary-age basketball league. I continued to referee throughout college. It was a lot of fun, but I didn’t mess around – I once threw a parent out for heckling. Oh, and because this all happened in Malibu, California, I met people like Tom Petty. His kid was in the league.

Jessica: Did you throw Tom Petty out?!

Naya: No, he was super cool.

Jessica: Well, my first job was less glamorous. I delivered donuts for my parents’ bakery in South Dakota. I was not a morning person, but I had to wake up at 5 a.m. and make the gas station and hotel deliveries before going to school. I started doing this when I was 14 – there was a special law that let you get a license early if your job required it – and I drove in ice and snow all the time. Honestly, I’m probably the best driver you’ll ever meet!


The best advice I ever received was:

Naya: “You can do anything with an education.” (Well, really, it was my mom saying, “You’ll go to college whether you like it or not!”) And my dad, who almost became a professional baseball player, taught me about good sportsmanship. He said, “How you act when you win is how you should act when you lose.”

Jessica: I got in trouble once in high school, and I remember my dad telling me, “Your reputation is the only thing you have.” Because of that, I always try to present my best self, even if I’m having a bad day. I want the people around me to experience the best I have to offer.


If someone wants to start a conversation with me, they should ask about:

Jessica: My kids. I have a 10-year-old son and a daughter who is two. You can also ask me about government and politics.

Naya: Anything. Really! I can always find something to say. I like hearing other people’s stories, so I usually get curious and just start asking a bunch of questions.


My favorite meal is:

Naya: Mexican food. Specifically? My grandmother’s rice and beans, my aunt’s fried shrimp patties and some homemade tortillas.

Jessica: Anything that I can finish! With kids, you don’t always get through your own meal. I’d also say anything that I don’t have to cook. Growing up, my Dad was a great cook, but that meant he kept the rest of us out of the kitchen. I’m just now learning how to put together a weekly meal plan of things everyone in my family will enjoy.



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