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Well and good

Sometimes, to understand someone, you have to look beyond what is explicitly said. You have to explore the background — literally.

“You’ll see behind me my Pilates equipment,” says Julie Erla (MAEd, 2023) with an apologetic laugh. “Health and wellness have always been of interest to me.”

Erla traces her fitness commitment back to her college graduate days, a time when Pilates was often mispronounced as “pilots,” and yoga studios had yet to hit the mainstream. Accordingly, her drive to move and feel good has led her down a professional and educational path that has about as many twists and turns as a King pigeon pose.

Now the facilitator of sales and contract development for Cigna, Erla reflects on how her love of learning and her desire to feel and perform her best have guided her life and career.

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From theater to PE

Ironically, Erla didn’t go to college to study fitness, nutrition or even business. She majored in communication and theater arts.

“I thought I was going to be managing theaters and working in the business my entire life,” Erla says. “But I quickly realized how little sleep you get.”

And how little recognition. And how the hours and lifestyle weren’t conducive to starting and raising a family. What Erla loved — mentoring backstage workers — was perhaps the one component from that life that she carried through the rest of her career, albeit in different iterations.

When the theater where she worked closed, her Pilates instructor recruited Erla to manage a new studio, causing Erla to embark on a journey that would merge fitness with education.

UOPX alumna Julie Erla

Julie Erla, MAEd, 2023

“This was back in the day when there were no yoga studios really,” Erla says. “People were just teaching out of either their basements or random chiropractor offices. So, while I was working for her, I trained to be a Pilates instructor, and from there whatever I could do that was physical, I would do.”

Going corporate 

Meanwhile, Erla’s life flowed gently forward. She got married, became a certified yoga teacher, learned how to teach spin classes, moved to Arizona and started a family.

“[There was] something about connecting with all of the people I was teaching and feeling physically good,” Erla recalls. “I just wanted more people to see how great that is. And I guess I got really lucky that I work for a company that supports that.”

Before joining Cigna, Erla worked as an independent contractor for Maricopa County Public Health, bringing wellness programs to worksites. She still taught fitness classes on the side, and while the flexibility was great, there weren’t a lot of opportunities for career growth.

She was also hemmed in when it came to her reach. Working for the county, she could only impact so many people. That’s at least partly why, when the opportunity arose to join Cigna in 2019, Erla jumped.

Arturo Garcia-Montano

Arturo Garcia-Montaño, Cigna

“She feels very strongly about helping people improve their health and well-being,” says Arturo Garcia-Montaño. “I could see her passion coming through whenever we discussed … the various initiatives her clients agreed to promote.”

Garcia-Montaño is currently the engagement manager at Cigna, and he was Erla’s manager for two years. Erla credits him with helping her develop her skills and her career to align with her strengths and interests. For his part, Garcia-Montaño recalls how dedicated Erla was to the mission. “Julie truly walked the talk,” he says. “She even facilitated guided meditations for our sales partners during their team huddles!”

Finding destiny

At Cigna, Erla found her footing. “I was able to do some more fulfilling things working for Cigna than I was able to do independently, and I was able to reach a much broader audience under that umbrella,” Erla explains.

She started out educating employers and employees about their health benefits, that education piece being something that’s resonated with her since her days as a theater mentor and then as a wellness instructor. She loved her company and her work, but eventually she hit a plateau. Erla had always pursued one certification or another. She needed something new to sink her teeth into.

So, she started exploring education programs. Maybe, she thought, she should become a therapist, but the training was like starting her career all over again, and she liked what she was doing.

Then, as she puts it, “the universe moved my mouse to click on ‘education.’” Everything came into focus.

“When I saw the master’s in adult training and education, I was like, ‘Wait a minute. This is me. … This is the path that I’ve been looking to do. Why am I not exploring this degree?’”

Erla reached out to Garcia-Montaño for approval for tuition reimbursement and enrolled. “I think it was by far the smartest thing I had ever done in my education path,” Erla says. “Don’t reinvent the wheel, just support what you’re doing now.” 

Cigna and University of Phoenix work together to make education and skills enhancement more affordable for employees. 

Back in class

Going back to formal education after 20 years wasn’t easy, especially the online aspect. But after one class, she had the hang of online learning, and the flexibility of the program jibed with her role as a full-time employee, wife and mother.

“Quite frankly, it was perfect,” Erla says. “It was exactly what I needed. I could work at the time I needed to. I mean, I still had a full-time job and a daughter I was running back and forth from school and dance.”

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While some people view advanced degrees as a stepping stone in their career, Erla is more of an it’s-not-the-destination-but-the-journey kind of gal.

“It’s not just about getting the [diploma],” she says. “It’s truly the things you learn during the program. That was the best thing about University of Phoenix: It was applicable to everything I did in my role [at Cigna] at the time.”

And Erla was going places. “Julie asked for opportunities to get involved in new employee training while she was completing her master’s degree,” Garcia-Montaño says. “I believe this was a valuable opportunity for both Julie and the team as she was able to put into practice what she was learning in school.”

Today, Erla is thriving in the learning and development arm of Cigna. She helps new hires on board at the company, she connects with trainers and subject matter experts, and she serves as a liaison for employees as they navigate that first year on the job.

These themes that define her career today — educating, communicating, providing value — have guided Erla her entire career. They have made her what Garcia-Montaño calls a high performer.

Most importantly, they’ve brought her the sort of fulfillment that’s inherent to true wellness.

Elizabeth Exline


Elizabeth Exline has been telling stories ever since she won a writing contest in third grade. She's covered design and architecture, travel, lifestyle content and a host of other topics for national, regional, local and brand publications. Additionally, she's worked in content development for Marriott International and manuscript development for a variety of authors.


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