Felicia Knaul plays role throughout campus life, expands title of ‘First Lady’

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On Aug. 29, Felicia Knaul, the University of Miami’s first lady, hosted a “Walk & Talk” at the Wellness Center’s indoor track where students got a glimpse into her life as an economist, professor and global health expert.

“Walk & Talk” is a series Knaul started last year and plans on hosting once a month, engaging with students outside of sedentary office hours.

“I work much better when I am walking. Walking is one of the best exercises and it is a great way to talk and have meetings” Knaul said.

The conversation during the first session of the semester began with students asking Knaul about how she balances her multiple jobs and what it was like studying at Harvard. However, the focus shifted and it became an event where the first lady got to know the students one-on-one.

During the walk, Knaul expressed how she plans on bringing her public health course from the Miller School of Medicine to the Gables campus next semester so more students can take it.

Knaul’s career in public health has been predominantly characterized by her work with breast cancer awareness, and she is open about her fight with breast cancer. After surviving it, she combined her expertise on global health with her knowledge on cancer treatments and became an advocate for breast cancer education and awareness.

Knaul wrote a book about her battle with cancer, called “Beauty without the Breast,” she has spoken at the World Cancer Day Forum, she is president of the Latin American Union Against Cancer of Women and is founding president of Tomatelo a Pecho (Take It To Heart), a breast cancer research organization in Mexico.

When talking to freshman Gabriela Aklepi, Knaul told her about upcoming events on campus that might interest her, like the symposium on Women’s Cancers in the Americas on Oct. 5 and 6, in which Knaul will speak, and the new “Pink Powder” exhibit at Richter Library.

Morgan Owens, a senior studying political science and women’s and gender studies, said he enjoyed seeing a more personable side of someone in an high-ranking position.

“It’s really cool to see someone who is our First Lady, also be so engaged at UM in different ways,” he said.

Knaul is open to engaging in conversation with her students and colleagues. Her twitter account, @FeliciaKnaul, where she has almost 500 followers, is another platform where she talks to the community about upcoming events, shares her thoughts on bettering student life and posts thought-provoking articles.

“Reaching out to the student life is what gives me energy … We learn as much from you as we try to teach you, which is fantastic. It’s a great learning experience and it makes me feel like what we do is so worthwhile,” says Knaul.

Knaul’s extensive list of roles at the university include being director for the Miami Institute of the Americas, global health professor at Miller and contributing researcher with the Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center. Due to her many areas of work, Knaul’s vision for UM is broad in its scope.

“As director of Miami’s Institute of the Americas, I want to make sure we are strengthening our platforms for our faculty and students to work in the humanities, the political economy and the social sectors. As a professor for the Miller School of Medicine, I want to work on global health, financial protection and universal health coverage,” she said. “And as the first lady, I am trying to find healthy and active spaces where there could be outreach and conversation about learning and about being a stronger community.”

These positions require her to work in many different departments at the university, which complements and enriches her job as first lady.

“Being first lady is the most joyful, challenging and intriguing task because I have been able to do what an undergraduate gets to do: I’ve been able to immerse myself and learn about a whole series of different areas of learning, research and work that I didn’t know much of before,” she said.

Before moving to Miami, Knaul worked in Latin America since the late ‘80s, with a focus on social justice issues and access to health care. While she is still working on health projects in Mexico, she is now also learning new areas of study in Miami.

“All of this is new and very refreshing because when you are an academic, you try to be very knowledgeable and successful about one particular field. You lose the opportunity to be a broad learner – at least at work. So it’s been great to be able to learn again, it’s really refreshing,” Knaul said.

When compared to past first ladies in UM’s history, Knaul’s hands-on approach to the university is a relatively new approach to the role.

Arva Moore Parks, a celebrated historian, author and preservationist, who was inducted into the Florida Women’s Hall of Fame in 1986, wrote the book “The Pathway to Greatness,” which chronicled UM’s history up to when Donna Shalala took office in 2001. Over UM’s 90 years of establishment, there is no mention of action by any UM first lady in the book until the early 1980s, when Roberta “Bosey” Foote came to campus.

Fifty-five years after UM’s first class and after three former first ladies, Foote, who passed away on May 5, 2015, was the only first lady mentioned. Foote’s mention was due to her unique approach to the role at the time.

Her time as first lady was not only dedicated to bettering student life by supporting women’s clubs or attending football games – like past first ladies Marie Ashe, Hazel Pearson and Ruth King did – but to beautifying the school’s landscape.

Her legacy stands as the woman who initiated the campus’ transformation from an uncharacteristic, concrete campus into the area of lush greenery it is today.

Foote’s endeavor was the first step a UM president’s wife took that crossed the traditional boundaries of being first lady. After 14 years under Shalala’s tenure without a traditional “first lady” position, Knaul is using her role as a platform to connect all of her work and research, as well as her personal life.

“There have been four president’s wives during the history of the university. Each selected roles that fit the expectations and customs of the time period when they were part of university life … Dr. Knaul is not a traditional First Lady,” said Koichi Tasa, director of the UM Archives.

Knaul continues to break the boundaries of what UM’s first lady can do for the university by embodying the idea of the modern woman: a person making a valiant effort to balance her home and professional lives, and have them supplement one another.

“Knaul is innovating the role of the first lady of UM. Particularly, in her case, I would not refer to her first as the first lady of UM. I would call her a professor and director for the Miami institute of the Americas, who is also married to our president,” Owens said.

According to Merike Blofield, UM’s director of Women’s and Gender Studies, Knaul fits the bill of being part of a dual career couple – where both partners are parents and career people – which is the most common type of coupling among professionals today.

President Frenk’s accolades have been routinely mentioned at campus events, but Knaul is an accomplished professor, scholar and activist in her own right. Knaul said she tries to lead by example when it comes to rising above established gender roles and addressing the conundrum of women and the work-life balance.

“I am continuing to try to strengthen our knowledge and ability as women to be strong professionally as well as strong in our personal lives. To be able to combine that in ways that transcend being male or female and has to do with having very full professional and personal lives. I try being that to the university as a part of the faculty, as member of the leadership and also being married to the president,” she said.

Knaul will be speaking at the Women’s Cancers in the Americas: Strategies for Synergy symposium on Oct. 5 and 6 at the Braman Miller Center for Jewish Student Life. It is open to all, but registration is required.  

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