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UC Faculty Awards 2020: Maria Espinola

College of Medicine awardee honored with Faculty Senate Award for Exemplary Service

Maria Espinola was born in Argentina’s Patagonia region during the country’s last military dictatorship — a period of political repression known as the Dirty War. When elections were restored, Espinola’s parents enrolled her in a program designed to teach youth about the importance of a free society and the role journalists can play in maintaining democracy.

That decision is still paying dividends today thousands of miles away.

From the time she was 10 until she graduated high school, Espinola wrote weekly articles for a newspaper, participated in radio and TV interviews and was featured in three documentaries. She interviewed people impacted by the dictatorship and other traumatic experiences. The experience helped her develop a strong belief in promoting democracy and human rights.

For years Espinola thought she would be a journalist, but eventually she determined that psychology would be her best way to help individuals affected by trauma. Today she is a clinical psychologist and sees patients at UC Health. She also is regularly featured in local media.

“When I came to Cincinnati four years ago, I remember asking, ‘Which issues should be my priority?’” said Espinola. “I began to learn about Cincinnati’s history and decided to focus my attention on marginalized communities, particularly African Americans, Latinos and women of all backgrounds who have been impacted by trauma.”

Maria Espinola, assistant professor in the UC College of Medicine, is shown with youth at Saturday Hoops, a program sponsored by the Cincinnati Youth Collaborative.

Maria Espinola, an assistant professor in the UC College of Medicine, is shown on March 7 with youth at Saturday Hoops, a program sponsored by the Cincinnati Youth Collaborative. Photo by Colleen Kelley/UC Creative + Brand

UC Psychiatry-CHANGE Court Collaborative became one of her passions. She works with Judge Heather Russell to run a supervised treatment program that is voluntary and nonadversarial in its approach to victims of sex trafficking now in the court system. The program aims to help marginalized women heal from trauma, overcome addiction and achieve final independence.

Espinola sees Cincinnati as a beautiful city with incredible potential. However, she said this potential can be lost if people fail to realize the importance of supporting marginalized communities, particularly children living in poverty. African American youth comprise 65% of Cincinnati youth between ages 10 and 17. Almost two-thirds of these children live in poverty.

Those stats suggest a correlation with lower levels of education, poor health care outcomes and exposure to danger and more violence for youths. They also gave rise to another project for Espinola, the creation of African American Youth Wellness Fund. That initiative has garnered financial support from Cincinnati Youth Collaborative and Fifth Third Bank to advance projects that promote the well-being of underserved African American youth from low income families.

“I was thinking, ‘How could you expect a futuristic city on the rise to advance if the majority of its children live in poverty?’” said Espinola. “These are children who in a few years are expected to join the workforce. I think they should be a priority for everyone.”

Where one lives often determines health outcomes. It is an important area of concern for Espinola, who joined more than 40 students and faculty in UC’s colleges of Medicine and Pharmacy and other disciplines to establish the UC Student Run Free Clinic in Springdale, Ohio. The clinic operates out of space in the Healing Center and offers health care services for the uninsured.

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“The students’ initiative is incredible,” said Espinola. “I can’t tell you how many obstacles they have had to overcome to keep moving forward. That entire process will help them in the future as they become leaders in our healthcare system. I am so proud of their work.”

Promoting multiculturalism adds value to our society, according to Espinola. It’s a belief that prompted her to become a co-founder of the university’s Latino Faculty Association. Espinola said the organization is dedicated to promoting the well-being and advancement of Latino faculty, students, and the larger Latino community.

“It takes a lot of time and work to organize, but it’s well worth the effort,” said Espinola, noting UC has 185 full- and part-time Latino faculty. “Our entire community benefits when diversity and inclusion are embraced and celebrated.”

Featured image at top: Maria Espinola, assistant professor in the UC College of Medicine, photographed on March 7 with children at Saturday Hoops, a program of the Cincinnati Youth Collaborative. Photo/Colleen Kelley/UC Creative + Brand

UC Faculty Awards

UC is saluting the 16 winners of our 2020 All-University Faculty Awards in a three-part series in UC News weekly through April 22. Beginning April 23, all winners will also be showcased the Faculty Awards website.