Sofia Jawed-Wessel, Ph.D., has received global praise for her TEDx talk, “Women’s sexual pleasure: What are we so afraid of?”, was honored as the recipient of the Outstanding Achievement Award from the Chancellor's Commission on the Status of Women, and will be recognized by the Women's Center for Advancement (WCA's) 30th annual Tribute to Women in June. She is also the Associate Director of the Midlands Sexual Health Research Collaborative.
Sofia Jawed-Wessel, Ph.D., started at UNO during the 2012 spring semester. Jawed-Wessel says that she was intentional about finding a place like Omaha because she wanted to be somewhere with opportunities to make a difference in public health. "I wanted to be where I was truly needed by the community because it is up to cities like Omaha to set the path for other smaller metropolitan areas in Middle America."
Originally from Indiana, Jawed-Wessel was first inspired to explore a career in public health while working in her local community, at her first job post-college as a research assistant. She was assigned a long-term research project that called for her to collect data from young women living in the Indianapolis area. The goal of the project was to understand the context in which adolescent girls and young women engaged in sexual behaviors with the hopes of reducing sexually transmitted infections and unwanted pregnancies.
“I met and worked with first hand the people behind the numbers. Data was no longer just data to me. The approach of sexuality from a public health perspective humanized and contextualized the research and helped me see the importance of community engagement.” She continued on to obtain her masters and doctorate, where she worked with Bloomington Area Birth Services (BABS), a community-based organization providing childbirth education and support. "I began to see these groups of people that public health has largely ignored .” BABS helped her find her passion for advocacy for women and gender equity.
She says that her success today is a result of these experiences and the great mentors who showed her the world of public health. Some of those mentors include George'ann Cattelona, Ph.D., Debby Herbenick, Ph.D, Dennis Fortenberry, M.D., & Michael Reece, Ph.D.
Jawed-Wessel teaches three core classes in the School of Health, Physical Education, and Recreation, but teaching Public Health, Leadership, and Advocacy plays a major role in her community work and how she hopes to shape her students. The class takes students into local communities and teaches community organizing, grassroots activism, policy and media advocacy, and leadership skills.
"Students hear from several community leaders through the semester and learn how to listen to community members tell me and the class what they need, not me or us telling them. Students also have the opportunity to attend legislative hearings on public health policy and come to community organizing meetings with me to see the behind the scenes work. They get to see advocacy in action and apply their own skills as well."
Students are required to volunteer with a nonprofit in the community, in an intentional way to show them what advocacy looks like. "It shows them just how hard they have to fight for many different types of communities, and how much time community work really takes." She says there is a learned distrust of science with some of our local communities and feels strongly about improving that relationship. "We really try to be a part of the community, to give them reasons to trust us, creating opportunities for them to tell us how we can help."
Jawed-Wessel appreciates being in a college that values the work she does. "It's a great feeling when your college, your Dean and administrators, consider you a positive face of UNO. The Public Health and Health Behavior programs are better because of the community advocacy work that I do. I’m grateful Dean Edick agrees. Support from the School and College only motivates me more."She is truly a public health superhero.