Paris Wiechecki Vergara is a second-year Master of Public Health student at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health.

We reached out to Vergara to learn more about her work, her life, and her academic journey through the following Q & A.

How did you get into injury and violence prevention work?

My interest in violence prevention began in August 2019 when I became a crisis phone counselor with the Alachua County Crisis Center in Gainesville, FL. I spoke with hundreds of individuals, predominantly women and girls, about how their lives were impacted by sexual violence. Listening to their stories, I became increasingly exposed to the harsh reality that people affected by sexual violence lack trauma-informed support and justice. In this way, my volunteer work ignited a blazing passion that has sustained me over the last few years. I realized that violence prevention is a critical step in suicide prevention. Since then, I have primarily focused on efforts that involve child abuse prevention and sexual violence prevention.

What projects are you currently working on, and what makes them exciting to you?

Currently I serve as a research assistant with Project RESTART (Restorative, Effective Solutions Toward Accountability, Responsibility, and Treatment) under Beth Moracco and Deborah Weissman. The goal of this research is to reimagine domestic violence intervention programs (DVIPs) so as to mitigate the likelihood that a former perpetrator will re-offend. The most exciting part about this work has been collaborating with an amazing team of researchers who help me understand the legal landscape of domestic violence prevention. Additionally, I have been working with the Orange County Rape Crisis Center (OCRCC) since May 2023. I recently began volunteering with their youth prevention education team wherein I teach their Safe Touch curricula to school-age children. Prevention education invigorates me because I love talking about consent and safety, especially with children as they make sense of the world around them.

What were you doing before you started your program at UNC?

After graduating in May 2021 from the University of Florida, I worked full-time as a victim advocate with the Child Advocacy Center in Gainesville, FL for 11 months. In this role, my primary responsibilities were to (1) facilitate the forensic interviewing of children for investigations of alleged maltreatment, (2) communicate frequently with a multitude of local agencies regarding case dynamics and safety planning, (3) educate children and their families about the legal system, (4) connect clients with resources such as mental health treatment, financial assistance, food, clothing, academic support, etc. This experience opened my eyes to both the systemic issues in child protective services and the immense empathy that this kind of work requires. I took a few months to prepare for my big move before starting my MPH program in August 2022.

What do you enjoy doing outside of work and school?

When I am not busy with work or school, I love being in community and in nature. For example, I love the Carrboro farmer’s market! It’s fun catching up with friends and chatting with the local farmers and vendors. I take advantage of all the amazing trails and parks across the state. My favorite places are the Blue Ridge Mountains, Jockey’s Ridge State Park in Nags Head, Hanging Rock State Park in Danbury, Dorothea Dix Park and Pullen Park in Raleigh, and Eno River State Park in Durham. I highly recommend checking them out if you haven’t! Also, I prioritize spending time with my friends from the MPH program and FaceTime with my friends living in other states. When possible, I like visiting my family in Florida. Thankfully there’s a nonstop flight from Raleigh to Orlando, so it’s not too difficult to see my family on a long weekend.

What makes you unique?

I have a deep love of singing. Growing up, my dad was always singing in the car. In elementary school, I sang in a choir for a few years. I took a long break from publicly singing (with the exception of a high school talent show) until I joined the choir at a local church in January 2019. It gives me so much joy to sing with people, hearing the unique features of voices blending together. Now that I live in Chapel Hill, I sing at the Newman Catholic Center near UNC’s campus. I enjoy leading the songs during church services; the music directors have helped me to make tremendous improvements to my singing technique! In December 2023, I had the amazing opportunity to sing at my sister’s wedding. Being able to share my voice in this special way was truly unforgettable.

UNC IPRC’s Injury and Violence Prevention Fellowship program provides an opportunity for UNC-Chapel Hill graduate and professional students from diverse academic, professional, and demographic backgrounds to gain hands-on experience in injury and violence prevention by working with faculty mentors, networking, and pursuing professional development opportunities.