Dr. Teresa Wagner encourages TWU graduates to find their ‘why’ at December commencement

“Growing up as a Hispanic girl with a single mother in the 1970s and ‘80s when neither was popular or well accepted, I never dreamed that my life would one day have purpose or make an impact on other people’s lives,” Dr. Teresa Wagner recently shared with graduates from the Texas Woman’s University Department of Nutrition and Food Sciences, School of Health Promotion and Kinesiology and College of Nursing.

Dr. WagnerWagner was the invited commencement speaker at the Dec. 16 event. She is a TWU alumna, receiving her master’s degree in nutrition there before pursuing her Doctor of Public Health at The University of North Texas Health Science Center at Fort Worth.

Today she is an associate professor of health administration and policy at the HSC School of Public Health, as well an associate professor, personalized health and well-being, for the HSC School of Health Professions, and interim director and clinical executive for Health Literacy with SaferCare Texas. She is director of HSC’s Texas State Certified community health worker training program and is an HSC Center for Health Disparities Fellow.

Wagner opened her speech with a famous Mark Twain quote, “The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.”

As a girl, Wagner said, she was “literally just surviving the judgment and disparities” that were her everyday life by burying herself in her love of schoolwork and sports.

“Those escapes turned out to be beneficial, as I applied for and received a minority scholarship for my bachelor’s degree at Texas Christian University – that was my ticket out of my childhood circumstances,” she said.

Since that time, Wagner had two successful careers – one as a registered dietitian and one as an assistant and now associate professor of public health, specializing in health literacy.

The path wasn’t easy. At age 22, Wagner was laid off from her first job after just six months. She refocused and enrolled in a master’s program. If she hadn’t been laid off, she said, she probably wouldn’t have decided to pursue this degree.

“A few decades ago, just like you,” she told the new graduates, “I was sitting at my TWU commencement split between excited pride and feeling scared to death. Where was I headed? What impact could I possibly have on the world?”

She worked part-time in various clinical roles while obtaining her master’s, including cancer care, eating disorders, rehab, cardiology, neonatal intensive care and early childhood intervention. She married and had two daughters during that time, and to focus more on family, she decided to consult part-time until both girls were ready for school.

When Wagner was ready to rejoin the workforce full-time, she found a “dairy promotion” dietitian position and became a spokesperson for the National Dairy Council. She hadn’t traveled much and had no experience with news media, but still decided to seize the opportunity. Along with media training and the support of mentors, she did it, leaving behind a legacy of relationships and sports marketing when she moved to her next steps.

When her daughters were ready to leave home, Wagner decided it was time to make another leap, enrolling in the doctoral degree she’d always wanted to pursue. She resigned from her job and took on three part-time positions to attend graduate school at HSC full-time.

“Not only did I complete my DrPH degree, but I happened on my next purpose, which is health literacy, or helping people understand health information.”

To complete her degree, Wagner needed a residency. After learning that there were no residencies, legislation or funding for health literacy in Texas, she again set out to make things happen.

She created her own residency, a nonprofit and a network of health literacy advocates across the state who are as passionate about helping people understand health information as she is. Wagner has since become nationally and internationally recognized for her health literacy efforts.

“It’s been a long time since I was that young girl with little reason to believe my life would have purpose. I’ve aspired to lifelong learning to propel myself forward but also to find ways of serving others struggling with similar social determinants that I’ve been able to overcome by leveraging a variety of resources,” she said.

Wagner encouraged the new graduates to create their own purpose regardless of the challenges or rocky roads along the way.

“Create the ‘why’ that best serves you and embrace those scary and overwhelming opportunities along the way, including opportunities to serve others,” she said. “Your life is your story. Write well. Edit often. And most importantly, enjoy the journey.

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