María Elena Villar is associate professor and chair of the Department of Communication at the School of Communication + Journalism at Florida International University and teaches courses in communication theory, research methods, multicultural communication, and advanced seminars in strategic communications. She holds a doctorate in communications and master's in public health from the University of Miami, and a bachelor's degree in economics from Columbia University. Her research focuses on culturally competent communication for social and behavioral change, and on strategic communication for diverse audiences. In her career as a researcher, Dr. Villar has focused on diverse topics that range from culture and communication, social determinants of disease and health, domestic and sexual violence prevention, stigma related to HIV, mental health and drug abuse, evaluation of program outcomes, and communication for social change. She helped found the student-run faculty supervised strategic communication agency, BOLD, and has taken groups of students on summer abroad programs to Berlin, Germany and Seville, Spain. She has been an invited lecturer for graduate programs at Universidad del Norte in Colombia and Universidad Americana in Nicaragua.
She has dozens of publications based on her research including peer-reviewed journal articles, conference proceedings, a book chapter and many conference presentations, and several technical reports. Her work has been published in Journal of Immigrant and Minority Health, Sex Education, Health and Mass Communication, Howard Journal of Communication, Journal of Product and Brand Management, American Journal of Media Psychology, Pediatrics, and Journal of Pediatrics, as well as other scholarly journals. She has presented papers and lectures at national and international refereed conferences, including the National Communication Association, International Communication Association, Public Relations Society of America, Association for Educators in Mass Communication, Institute for Public Relations, World Congress on Communications for Development, Latin American Studies Association, Global Health and Innovation Summit at Yale University, and the CDC National Conference on Health Communication, Marketing and Media.
Prior to coming to FIU, she was adjunct professor of public health at Nova Northeastern University, and taught speech communication at Miami Dade College and communication at the University of Miami. She has been an invited lecturer for graduate programs at several universities in Latin America. Dr. Villar's professional experience includes senior research roles at the University of Miami School of Medicine departments of epidemiology and pediatrics; and at the Nova Southeastern University's Institute for Child Health Policy.
In addition to her responsibilities as researcher and educator, Dr. Villar is heavily involved in the community. She served as social marketing director to federally funded FACES (Families and Communities Empowered for Success), a community initiative to improve behavioral health services for youth and ensure that family voices are heard. In that role she oversaw all social marketing, branding, stigma reduction and internal communication activities. For her work, she received various ECCO (Excellence in Communication and Community Outreach) Award from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Based on this work, she was recognized by Florida International University as a 2012 Top Scholar for her scholarly contributions.
Dr. Villar's current projects include research on the use of "fotonovelas" or graphic novels for discussion of stigmatized health issues among Haitian and Latino immigrants; culture, stigma and HIV-related behaviors; culturally appropriate approaches to improve clergy health; involvement of Latino fathers in their children's health, and and measuring attitude change as a precursor to behavior change. She is currently collaborating on an interactive game intervention to increase awareness and promote prevention of commercial sexual exploitation of children and adolescents in Colombia.