Emerging Scholars Fellowship: Introducing Heidi T. Tuason, MPH


Heidi is a researcher in the 2016 class of the Emerging Scholars Fellowship. Read blog updates from Heidi and her fellow scholars here.

Magandang araw sa inyong lahat! (Good day to you all!) My name is Heidi Tumang Tuason, and I’m a 3rd year Doctor of Public Health student at UCLA, studying Community Health and minoring in Asian American Studies.

I’m excited to share with you about my research. But first, as I’m learning in my qualitative research classes, it’s important to know where the researcher comes from, so before I talk about my project, here’s some background about me.

5 Things About Me through Places I’ve Called Home:

  1. DALY CITY, CALIFORNIA – Daly City born and raised from an immigrant family

I am the youngest of three daughters (“bunso”) of an immigrant family who came to the US from the Philippines in the 1970s, products of the post-1965 Immigration Act wave. I was born in San Francisco and grew up there and in Daly City until high school.

My family is one of the many Filipino families that make up one-third of the population of Daly City, which is why some people call it the “Pinoy Capital”. I’ve realized that growing up here has really shaped how I see the world and my commitment to the Filipino community


(Left) My mom and sister migrating from the Philippines, 1970. (Right) My sisters and I with my mom, 1986.

  1. MANILA, PHILIPPINES – Only one in my family not born in the Philippines – but studies abroad there and speak the Filipino language
heidi in philippines

Visiting a Farming Community during Study Abroad in the Philippines, 2004

I was the only one in my family (and of my sisters) not born in the Philippines, but among my sisters, I’m the only one who speaks the Filipino language. I’ve had the opportunity to study abroad in the Philippines several times through various programs (2004, 2009, 2010, 2014) and also studied the Filipino language at UCSD and UC Berkeley.

I’m proud to say that I’ve even gotten to the proficiency that I have conducted work and research using the Filipino language, and I’ve even had the opportunity to pass along the language to over 100 UCLA students.

I regularly go to the Philippines now and part of my heart still feels very connected to the motherland.

  1. SAN DIEGO, CA – Engineering Drop-out turned Ethnic Studies & Biology major and Community organizer & activist

I went to UC San Diego for undergrad with the dreams of becoming a bioengineer and making synthetic hearts. But then after studying abroad in the Philippines, I started getting involved with the Pilipino student organizations and became a student activist.

heidi at ucsd and open mic

(Left) Pilipino Students Saving Tagalog at UCSD, 2005. (Right) Performing at a Kamalayan Kollective open mic, 2006.

I got more interested in the histories and experiences of immigrant communities of color and became an Ethnic Studies major, but kept the Biology major as well since I was interested in health. This double major didn’t really make sense (to me and others) at the time, but eventually led me to a career in community health.

While at UCSD, I also worked at OASIS & Summerbridge, helping to recruit and retain historically underrepresented students of color, and at the Cross-Cultural Center as a Diversity Peer Educator, learning how to facilitate workshops and discussions about diversity and racism. My undergrad in San Diego really laid a foundation for how I approach the field of public health and mental health.

  1. SAN FRANCISCO & OAKLAND, CA – Fell in love with Community clinics & Community Health work

After college, I did a program called Americorps Community Healthcorps in San Francisco. I was placed at a free clinic called the Women’s Community Clinic as an Assistant Clinic Manager and thrown into the thick of community health! There, I did all kinds of things ranging from:

  • supervising clinic shifts with over a dozen staff,
  • counseling patients around urinary tract infections, potential unwanted pregnancies, and potential positive HIV results,
  • handling frustrated patients and being thanked by grateful patients,
  • counting our pills to make sure we had enough in stock,
  • improving their paper wait list process and moving it to an electronic database so patients with the highest priority would be seen earlier
heidi at womens comm clinic

Screenshot from the Women’s Community Clinic website, 2009

I learned a lot through that year and continued to work and volunteer there after my year of service. I fell in love with working at community clinics, and in the years following, worked at Asian Health Services and La Clinica de la Raza in Oakland, and did projects and interned with other community-based health organizations like Community Health for Asian Americans and API Wellness Center.

At La Clinica, I learned how to be a community health planner, and work with community health workers and staff to develop community-appropriate health programs and then communicate that to funders to get funding by writing grants about our plans and writing reports about our progress. I had the opportunity to work on programs including culturally-appropriate integrated behavioral health services and community health programs like domestic violence prevention using street theater.

After my experience at La Clinica, I transferred over to San Francisco to work on a mental health project through the Asian & Pacific Islander Health Parity Coalition (now called the Asian & Pacific Islander Mental Health Collaborative). I organized community leaders from Samoan, Filipino, Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Laotian communities in San Francisco through a community-based planning process to develop culturally & linguistically relevant mental health programs. I also helped build the organizations’ capacity to implement those programs.

During my masters’ program, I also started interning with the Center for Digital Storytelling (now called StoryCenter) and after helping out with a couple digital storytelling workshops around HIV stigma reduction, I got to bring this to the API mental health work I was doing.

In 2012, I co-faciliated and assisted with 3 digital storytelling workshops with the Samoan, Southeast Asian, and Filipino communities to help tell their stories around mental health stigma. It is through all of this community clinic and digital storytelling work that I came to my current research project.

  1. BERKELEY & LOS ANGELES, CA – Public Health training I’m getting another kind of doctorate (not a PhD) called a DrPH

After getting a taste of the community clinic setting, I came back to school to get my MPH at UC Berkeley with a focus in Maternal & Child Health to gain skills to help me be a more effective community health worker.

I did my MPH internship in the Philippines working with an organization called Likhaan Center for Women’s Health around reproductive health access using advocacy, direct service, and research. I got to see how Filipino community health workers / promotoras brought health services to the poorest of the poor in the Philippines, and through that experience, deepened my language skills, cultural understanding, and commitment to the Filipino community.

After working another 3 years in the field after my masters, I came back to UCLA to get my doctorate in public health (DrPH), an applied doctorate different than a PhD, to continue to strengthen my research and leadership skills to better advocate for the communities I work with. I’m 3 years in and just passed my first qualifying exam, so I’m on my way to the dissertation!

heidi at mural in la

At the Historic Filipinotown mural in Los Angeles

ABOUT THE KAMALAYAN PROJECT: Digital Stories Addressing Filipino Mental Health Stigma

My research project entitled “The Kamalayan Project” builds upon my community health and digital storytelling background and aims to uncover stories of mental health challenges and stigma in the Filipino community, using digital storytelling (short participatory community-made films).

In this pilot project, I am looking specifically at the mental health experiences of the Filipino community through the lens of Filipino college students (particularly young Filipina women (Pinays), undocumented Filipinos, and LGBT Filipinos).

kamalayan project

The Kamalayan Project will also hold community screenings of the digital stories and facilitate community dialogues about mental health in the Filipino community.

Through data collected from the digital storytelling workshop participants and community audiences, my research project hopes contribute to the body of knowledge that illustrates how creative methods can be used to address mental health stigma, improve mental health awareness, and increase mental health service access in the Filipino community.


Through 3-day digital storytelling workshops (based on the StoryCenter’s curriculum), participants go through a process of sharing their story in a circle of peers, writing their story, recording their story, creating a short digital story with images, and screening their story.

digital storytelling outline

Through surveys and interviews with participants, I will explore the specific cultural aspects that have affected their perceptions and experiences of mental health. I will also explore what effect the digital storytelling process has on the participants’ willingness to share their story, perceptions of mental health, and willingness to seek mental health services and encourage others to do so as well.

We will also conduct community screenings of the digital stories, and have group discussions:

  • with audience members about what they thought of the stories (if any resonated with them and if it affected their perception of mental health in the community), and
  • with digital storytelling participants about how the process of sharing their stories was like


I am hoping that this research will fill a void in research that talks about the experiences of these Filipino subpopulations and a void in the research that shows how creative methods are used in reducing mental health stigma and increasing awareness of mental health in hopes that people will seek help if they need it and tell their friends and family.


I have been blessed to be funded by both the UCLA Asian American Studies Center and Active Minds to conduct this research, but since it was my first official research project, I also encountered some challenges.

Coming from a health program implementation background, I did not know I had to get approval from the Institutional Review Board (IRB) to do my project or how to go about it. It was a steep learning curve for me, and took me several months to work on the application and get the first draft submitted.

The IRB application has gone through two full board reviews and has since been in review for nearly 5 months now. My advisors, mentors, and I are working closely with the IRB committee to make revisions to ensure the protection of participants, and I am hoping that I will receive approval soon, so my team and I can start data collection (and analysis).

Given the Spring Quarter, it may be challenging to recruit participants so late in the year during one of the busiest times for the Filipino student community (Pilipino Cultural Night season, finals, and graduations), but we will revisit the timeline once IRB approves the project.

Despite the challenges, I’m trying to stay resilient and stay in line with Brene Brown’s philosophies of Daring Greatly and Rising Strong – I’m committed to seeing this project through and am dedicated to the ups and downs of the journey. I’ll be keeping you all updated on how it goes.

heidi and dogWish us luck!