Wayne America

A “Moonlight moment” for Wayne State’s Fulbright Scholar

Dr. Barbara Engebretsen, professor of exercise science at Wayne State College, is pictured on a hill overlooking Bahir Dar, Ethiopia and the Blue Nile River. She recently received a Fulbright Scholar award and will do work in Ethiopia and Nepal in the summers of 2018 and 2019. (Contributed photo)

On Feb. 7, Dr. Barbara Engebretsen received the news that she was an alternate for the prestigious Fulbright Global Award, presented by the J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board.

Three weeks later – she got even better news.

The Fulbright scholarship board e-mailed her with news that she was no longer an alternate, but a true-blue Fulbright Scholar, receiving an award that will give her the opportunity to spend parts of the summers of 2018 and 2019 in Ethiopia and Nepal, continuing work on efforts to engage student health clubs in those countries, and here at home, to help address hypertension in Ethiopia, Nepal and Nebraska.

Engebretsen, who had already begun work on the project on earlier trips to the African and Asian countries, was working on another grant that would help fund a lot of the work that was planned for this summer.

And then, the night before that grant was due, her phone picked up an e-mail that said “Global Award.”

“Underneath the headline it said ‘Congratulations’ and I didn’t even want to open it up,” she said. “When I opened it up and read it, it was the good news and I just dissolved into tears.”

She referred to the recent faux pas during the Academy Awards to describe the feeling.

“It was my Moonlight moment and I still feel like I’m in La-La Land,” she said, smiling.

The road to a Fulbright Scholar award began way back in 1995 when Dr. Engebretsen and her husband moved to Laurel, where he served as pastor at Emmanuel Lutheran Church for 20 years before retiring a few years ago.

She said the family was having trouble making ends meet on one salary. She had a Masters degree and was working on her doctorate, so she called Wayne State College to see if there were any possible teaching openings.

Bizuayehu Walle, Department Chair for Physiology at the BDU College of Medicine and Health Sciences and Dr. Barbara Engebretsen stand at the edge of a suspension footbridge while on a hike to the Blue Nile Falls. (Contributed photo)

“I got a call from Ralph Barclay and he said they’d lost their track coach and ask if I would teach,” she said. “I wasn’t going to coach track, but they had a full-time teaching position available and I just fell in love with it here. I started teaching here and saw how much they value teaching professors here, and it was the job I never knew I was going to love.”

Dr. Engebretsen finished her PhD in Physiology at Colorado State University and has continued teaching at Wayne State for the past 22 years. In 2015, when Dr. Engebretsen took a sabbatical and met with colleagues and students in Ethiopia and Napal, She made some fantastic contacts there and faced a dilemma the following years when colleagues from both countries invited her back.

“Both were good fits and we are really kindred spirits and match in what we wanted to do, but I couldn’t figure out if it was possible to do it realistically,” she said.

Engebretesen said she heard about a new Fulbright program called the Global Flex Award from Leah Keino, director of multicultural international studies at Wayne State College. The award required a recipient to work in two countries in two different parts of the world. With Nepal in Asia and Ethiopia in Africa, it proved to be the perfect fit for what Dr. Engebretsen was looking at.

“It gives scholars the flexibility to do it in segments of time over two years,” she said. “I’d already taken a sabbatical and wasn’t able to take time off from teaching, so I wanted to do this in the summer months.”

Dr. Engebretsen’s work as part of the Fulbright award is to address hypertension and non-communicable diseases in developing countries.

“It’s easy to think that the developing part of the world doesn’t have to worry about things like heart disease, lung disease, diabetes or cancer, that they’re more prone to things like malaria, starvation and infectious diseases,” she said, adding that 4 of 5 deaths from noncommunicable diseases occur in developing nations.

Dr. Engebretsen has worked with colleagues and students in Nepal and Ethiopia, as well as here in Nebraska, to form a group called HEARTS (Hypertension Education And Resourcing Talented Students) that helps teach students about they physiology of hypertension. HEARTS brings academics, health professionals and university students together to provide workshops to teach and mentor high school students in the basic physiology of blood pressure, teach skills for measuring blood pressure and develop risk survey strategies.

“These high school students – HEARTS Teams – will then lead community screening, community conversations, and development of health promotion and other indicated interventions in their communities,” Engebretsen said. “We’ll also join all international HEARTS Teams by video conferencing and other social media into ‘Global HEARTS Teams’ to share understanding, screening data and best practices.”

Engebretsen said most high schools in Ethiopia and Nepal have health clubs, and students from those clubs and students health club members in the Northeast Nebraska Area Health Education Center in Norfolk will work together, along with Northeast Nebraska Public Health Department and the University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Public Health.

Being a Fulbright Scholar is an incredible honor for any professor in the education community.

First-year medical students in a Human Physiology class greet Dr. Engebreetsen after she greeted them with “my modest Amharic” as she asked who preferred physiology over anatomy. To her delight, most of the students did. (Contributed photo)

“As a Fulbright Scholar, you’re an ambassador of the United States in a scholarly realm,” Dr. Engebretsen said, and she will spend five weeks in both nations in the summers of 2018 and 2019 as part of the award.

Dr. Engebretsen’s award was praised by Dr. Tammy Evetovich, dean of the School of Natural and Social Scienes at Wayne State, in a recent news release.

“I cannot think of a better scholar that will be able to lead Ethiopian and Nepali students and faculty in global-health service learning activities,” she said. “Her expertise and passion for global health is apparent and will translate into a strong academic experience for all involved. Not only will this project benefit her international partners, her project will further enrich her scholarly and teaching aspirations by bringing back to WSC experiences gained while teaching and completing research with faculty and students in Ethiopia and Nepal.”

Dr. Engebretsen said the award wouldn’t have been possible without a lot of support, particularly from Wayne State College and the Wayne Rotary Club, of which she has been a member since 2010.

“Without Roatry I’d have never even thought about it,” she said. “Without the support of our administration and our dean, Tammy Evetovich, and the people I’ve met in Ethiopia and Nepal, when you look at all of these hands that have joined together, it’s amazing how one crazy idea can take wing.”

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