Antonia M. Villarruel, PhD, RN, FAAN
When Antonia M. Villarruel decided to be a nurse, she never envisioned that she would become a pioneering nurse-researcher who would improve the health of underserved Latino communities or dean of the number one nursing school in the world. By taking advantage of opportunities — including earning an MSN at Penn Nursing — Dr. Villarruel is now the Margaret Bond Simon Dean of Nursing at Penn Nursing and an internationally renowned leader in research, policy and practice. The sixth dean of the School, she is only the second alumna to serve in this position and the first dean to serve who has prior and current NIH funding.
“At Penn Nursing, students have the intellectual capacity to undergo the rigors of a nursing science curriculum while surrounded by world-class faculty who are invested in their success, always providing an array of possibilities to discover and develop their passions!”
PhD – Wayne State University, Detroit, MI – 1993
MSN – University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA – 1982
BSN – Nazareth College, Kalamazoo, MI – 1978
The Limitless Options in Nursing
A bilingual and bicultural nurse-researcher, Dr. Villarruel’s career illustrates what she calls the limitless options available in nursing. Her work spans clinical work in a children’s hospital, faculty roles at two universities, developing the widely-used intervention Cuídate (“Take care of Yourself”) for Hispanic teens, advocating for health equity and diversification of the nursing profession, and more.
Dr. Villarruel designed Cuídate, which promotes abstinence and safer sex within the frame of Latino culture, with the participation of the community and with NIH funding. In a randomized controlled trial, she proved the intervention’s effectiveness. While Dr. Villarruel works to make Penn Nursing the preeminent intellectual and transformative force in improving health through nursing, she continues her NIH-funded research.
Improving Population Health as a Nurse-Researcher
As a nurse at the Children’s Hospital of Michigan early in her career, Dr. Villarruel had her first taste of research when she and a colleague developed a pain assessment tool that helped children communicate the level of their pain. The tool improved the way that pain in children is managed, and Dr. Villarruel realized that as a nurse-researcher, she could improve health at the population level. This led her to pursue further education: an MSN at Penn Nursing and a PhD at Wayne State University.
Halfway through her PhD program, Dr. Villarruel shifted her research focus to promoting health and reducing disparities in the Hispanic community. During a post-doctoral fellowship in health promotion and risk reduction at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, she first started work, in consultation with the community, on developing an evidence-based, culturally-relevant intervention to curb the high rates of pregnancy among Hispanic teenagers.
Reducing Risky Sexual Behaviors Among Latino Teens
After completing her post-doctoral fellowship, Dr. Villarruel returned to Penn Nursing as an assistant professor, where she developed the proposal for the intervention that became Cuídate. Despite continual rejections, largely due to the stereotypes about Latinos, she persisted. Eventually, Dr. Villarruel received NIH funding to develop the six-hour, small-group intervention to promote abstinence and safer sex for Latino teens. Cuídate uses interactive games, group discussion, role-plays, video, music, and mini-lectures to teach HIV/AIDS knowledge, condom negotiation, refusal of sex, and correct condom use skills.
A randomized controlled trial, conducted by Dr. Villarruel and funded by NIH, found that participants reduced the number of sexual partners and their rate of unprotected sex, and increased the age at which they first had sex. These results were sustained over the long term. Cuídate is now widely used throughout the United States and Puerto Rico. The CDC disseminated the intervention through its Effective Interventions for HIV Prevention program and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services lists it as an evidence-based intervention.
Building on this work, Dr. Villarruel has developed and is testing a web-based intervention to increase communication between parents and their teenagers about sexual risk. Called Cuídalos (“Take care of them”), and also funded by NIH, the results of this study will inform the development of future parent-adolescent sexual risk reduction programs and the use of technology in interventions for underserved populations. As of early 2016, NIH had invested more than $25 million in this research, with Dr. Villarruel as the principal or co-investigator.
Developing Leadership and Administrative Skills
Prior to becoming dean of Penn Nursing in 2014, Dr. Villarruel spent 14 years at the University of Michigan School of Nursing, most recently as a professor, the Nola J. Pender Collegiate Chair, and the associate dean for research and global affairs. As associate dean, she helped nursing faculty steadily increase NIH-funded research. She also directed the World Health Organization (WHO) Collaborating Center for Research and Clinical Training in Health Promotion Nursing.
Dr. Villarruel also held a joint faculty appointment in the School of Public Health. She led an interdisciplinary and multi-school strategic planning process to help the University of Michigan integrate the research, education, practice, and global missions of the School, the Health System, and the University.
Improving Health through Innovative Nursing
When the opportunity to lead Penn Nursing arose, Dr. Villarruel once again returned to Philadelphia. She believes strongly in the Penn Compact 2020 – innovation, integration, and inclusion – and takes great pride in the nursing education that she received at Penn. For students at Penn Nursing, Dr. Villarruel believes that anything is possible. The School offers an innovative environment with world-class faculty that enables diverse students to prepare for leadership roles in improving health.
While Penn Nursing is already the top nursing school in the world, Dr. Villarruel’s leadership focuses on also being the preeminent intellectual and transformative force in improving health through nursing. She is creating a common vision for Penn Nursing and empowering the faculty and staff to implement that vision. Key tasks already underway include developing research areas for the future, diversifying the incoming faculty, and further integrating the research, education, practice, and global missions of the School, the University of Pennsylvania Health System, and the University.
Dr. Villarruel also directs the World Health Organization (WHO) Collaborating Center for Nursing and Midwifery Leadership at Penn Nursing. The center works with the WHO and the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) to help reduce maternal mortality in Haiti, with potential replication in Bolivia, and to develop leadership in nursing education and research.
Advancing Health Policy
Dr. Villarruel has sat at many policy tables. Within the nursing community, she co-chairs the National Strategic Advisory Committee of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation/AARP Future of Nursing Campaign for Action, and served as co-chair of its Diversity Steering Committee. As the former president of the National Association of Hispanic Nurses, Dr. Villarruel teamed up with the heads of other minority nurse groups to form the National Coalition of Ethnic Minority Nurse Associations. She is also a former board member of the American Academy of Nursing.
Outside of nursing, Dr. Villarruel is an active member of the Health and Medicine Division of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (formerly called the Institute of Medicine). She chairs its Roundtable on the Promotion of Health Equity and the Elimination of Health Disparities and was most recently invited to serve as a member of the Advisory Group for the new Culture of Health program at the National Academy of Medicine, supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
Selected Career Highlights
- International Nurse Researcher Hall of Fame, Sigma Theta Tau International
- Elected member, National Academy of Medicine
- Fellow, American Academy of Nursing
- Alumna of the Year, Wayne State University College of Nursing
- President’s Award for Health Behavior Intervention Research, Friends of the National Institute of Nursing Research
Villarruel, A.M., Jemmott, J.B.III, Jemmott, L.S. (2006). A randomized controlled trial testing an HIV prevention intervention for Latino youth. Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, 160, 772-777.
Perez, G. R., Reyes, G. R., Villanueva, V. L., Torres, G. J. T., Diaz, E. B., Varas-Diaz, N., & Villaruel, A. (2016). “Estigma y VIH/SIDA entre padres/madres y adolescentes puertorriquenos/as”. Revista puertorriquena de psicologia, 27(1), 134-145.
Martsolf, GR, Gordon, T., Warren, May L., Mason, D., Sullivan, C. & Villarruel, A. (2016). “Innovative nursing care models and culture of health: Early evidence.” Nurs Outlook, 64 (4), 367-76. doi: 10.1016/j.outlook.2016.02.009
Mason, D.J., Martsolf, G.R., Sloan, J., Villarruel, A., Sullivan, C. (2019). “Making health a shared value: Lessons from nurse-designed models of care.” Nursing Outlook, 67, 213-222. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.outlook.2018.12.024
Aebersold, M. Villarruel, A. Tschannen, D., Valladares, A., Yaksich, J., Yeagley, E. & Hawes, A. (2015). Using a virtual environment to deliver evidence-based interventions: the facilitator’s experience. JMIR Serious Games, 3(2), e5. doi: 10.2196/games.4293.
- Alvarez, C., Villarruel, A.M. (2015). “Association of Gender Norms, Relationship and Intrapersonal Variables, and Acculturation with Sexual Communication Among Young Adult Latinos”. Research in Nursing & Health, 38(2), 121-132.10.1002/nur.21645
- Villarruel, A.M., Aebersold, M., Valladares, A., Yeagley, E. & Tschannen, D. (2014). “Avatars Travel for Free: Virtual Access to Evidence-Based Intervention Training and Capacity Building”. AIDS Education and Prevention, 26(5), 445-458.10.1521/aeap.2014.26.5.445
Tschannen, D., Yaksich, J., Aebersold, M., & Villarruel, A. (2016). “Fidelity after SECOND LIFE facilitator training in a sexual risk behavior intervention”. Simulation & Gaming, 47(1), 130-150.10.1177/1046878115627279
- Valladares, A., Aebersold, M., Tschannen, D., Villarruel, A. (2014). “Preparing Facilitators From Community-Based Organizations for Evidence-Based Intervention Training in Second Life”. Journal of Medical Internet Research, 16(9), .10.2196/jmir.3606
- Villarruel AM, Fairman JA (2015). “The Council for the Advancement of Nursing Science, Idea Festival Advisory Committee: good ideas that need to go further”. Nursing Outlook, 63(4), 435-8.10.1016/j.outlook.2015.04.003