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Olivia Vilá is Creating Equitable, Resilient Communities

Some come upon their calling later in the journey of life, while others fortuitously discover it at a very early age. For NC State alumna Olivia Vilá, it was the latter.

“Throughout my educational journey, I had been interested in hazards and disasters,” Vilá said. “I grew up in Puerto Rico, where I experienced several hurricanes. To me, from an early age, that experience of disaster and disaster recovery was really fascinating. I never made a link between career or field of study until I got to college.”

As an undergraduate student at Colorado State University, Vilá was pursuing a degree in psychology when she became plugged into research that explored the human dimensions of disasters, weather and climate change.

Later, as a master’s student in geography at Memorial University of Newfoundland, she continued on that same trajectory, doing work around the human dimensions of climate. This is when she really honed in on focusing on disasters and natural hazards and when she began thinking ahead to her next step in life.

Vilá eventually joined the College of Natural Resources at NC State, setting her up nicely to conduct research in a field that she was personally interested in and connected to. She recently graduated with a doctoral degree in parks, recreation and tourism management.

Exploring Her Passion

Today, Vilá is pursuing her passion through the NOAA Sea Grant John A. Knauss Marine Policy Fellowship program, a year-long program for graduate students who are interested in national policy issues affecting ocean, coastal and Great Lakes resources.

In February, Vilá started her fellowship working full-time with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) as a Great Lakes coastal program specialist. In this role, she is responsible for looking at environmental justice and how USGS efforts can be better coordinated around it. 

“For me, this was really interesting because I got to see this big program and how it’s implemented and how different agencies and different stakeholders come together to promote these Great Lakes coastal initiatives,” Vilá said. “I’m especially interested in how federal-level resilience efforts from the ocean coasts can be applied to the Great Lakes.”

This fellowship serves as the perfect opportunity for Vilá to put the knowledge she has obtained through the NC State College of Natural Resources to use, in addition to the skill set she has developed over the past four years in the Ph.D. program.

Being in academia, Vilá says there is a tendency to become too focused on specific projects. The NOAA fellowship, however, will help her get a better sense of where her skills and knowledge can be of use and where they can be most impactful for communities in need. 

“I really want to showcase that I’m not just someone who can function in academia,” Vilá said. “I want to showcase my skills and my potential and prove myself as someone who can lead and be a great colleague in a policy context.”

No matter what direction the world points her in after the fellowship, Vilá says she wants more than anything to serve society in a meaningful way and especially help underserved communities build resilience and prevent disasters caused by natural hazards, from wildfires to hurricanes. Being personally ambitious and driven, Vilá aspires to become a leader as well. 

Finding Her Strength

The growth, perseverance and skills that Vilá is using in her fellowship wouldn’t have been possible without the research she did as a Ph.D. student at the College of Natural Resources.

During her four years at the college, Vilá participated in a wide array of research projects. That includes Project BRIDGE, a community-based resilience project in Robeson County, North Carolina. Vilá worked alongside her Ph.D. advisor and project leader, Bethany Cutts, to conduct qualitative interviews, soil sampling and documentary co-production efforts. 

Among other projects, Vilá explored the role of nonprofits in helping underserved communities across Wilmington, North Carolina recover from disasters. She also supported research related to the role of state leaders helping underserved communities leverage federal mitigation funding, resilience in the agritourism industry during COVID-19 and policy innovation in hazard-prone housing acquisition programs.  

“It’s been a giant learning curve over the past four years,” Vilá said. “I feel like I gained a lot of hard and soft skills as a result, and now that I’m officially done, I’m really proud of the body of work that I’ve been able to produce and the professional relationships I’ve been able to make.”

Vilá defended her Ph.D. dissertation in March 2022. But the path to success wasn’t always easy. She had to learn to prioritize quality over quantity with her desire to be involved in a multitude of interesting projects. She also had to learn to overcome a fear of failure.

Vilá participates in soil sampling research training in Robeson County, NC, for Project BRIDGE. Photo courtesy of Project BRIDGE.

Vilá took her first graduate-level theory course informally as a curious undergraduate student and can still recall how embarrassed she felt to speak up for fear of saying something that didn’t sound smart in the presence of graduate students.

However, by the time she completed her final graduate-level theory course, Vilá felt confident enough to ask a lot of questions, no longer concerned about how she was perceived by others. She ultimately grew to see that it was all about exploring ideas and testing the boundaries of social theories and concepts. 

“Don’t be afraid of failure or rejection; you should go for all the crazy things that you want, you should put all your crazy ideas out there, even if they aren’t fully fleshed out at first,” Vilá said. “Talk about your ideas with your advisors, with your mentors and colleagues. Apply for grants, internships, and fellowships that sound interesting to you; don’t worry about what others are thinking or that you’ll get rejected.”

She added, “If you do get rejected, who cares, learn something from the experience and move on. It’s that openness and perseverance that’s going to make you really successful as a Ph.D. student.”

This post was originally published in College of Natural Resources News.