Alejandro Varela

MPH 2006

Even as a kid, Alejandro Varela has been able to take a complicated topic and turn it into language that makes sense for everyone in the room.

As a child of immigrant parents from El Salvador and Colombia, Varela acted as family spokesperson and interpreter for the Spanish speakers in his family. This required understanding complex subjects, translating nuance, and developing a sense for when someone was confused. 

Varela has continued his work as an interpreter of language and ideas, but this time, for public health. A 2006 Master of Public Health alum of the University of Washington (UW) School of Public Health (SPH), Varela is an author and 2022 National Book Award finalist. His novels and stories take public health topics — from systemic racism to gentrification to sexuality — and make them accessible and memorable.

“I’ve always tried to communicate and write in a way that can reach as many people as possible, and I’m attuned to the miscommunication happening around me,” Varela said. “When I want to advocate for something or talk about a research finding, I will struggle to get it down to one good sentence because I want somebody to think, ‘Woah, I hadn't thought about it that way.’” 

Varela was awarded SPH’s 2023 Alumni Impact Award, the highest honor the School gives to alumni for distinguished service and achievement across public health. His ability to use fictional stories and art as a means of accessible public health dialogue reveals lessons for public health schools and professionals alike.

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