For Tetine Sentell, a researcher who studies public health disparities in Hawai‘i, expanding her career internationally started with serving as a Fulbright Specialist in Albania.
In 2016, the Associate Professor at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa received tenure and wanted to use her upcoming sabbatical to gain insights into health systems abroad. But with a young family, her time – and therefore options – were limited.
She found a solution in the Fulbright Specialist Program, which allowed her to visit Albania for three weeks in early 2017 to work with two institutions promoting public health, the Institute of Public Health (IPH) and the University of Medicine, Tirana.
“I was really excited about the Fulbright Specialist Program,” says Sentell. “It gave me the opportunity for a deep dive in an exciting new place.”
Much of Sentell’s time was spent at IPH, which is both a research and university institute, as well as the main technical branch of the Albanian Ministry of Health. IPH researchers needed an expert to help them evaluate a new national healthcare program called Si Je, which means “how are you?” in Albanian.
Si Je is a free annual check-up program designed to encourage adults ages 35 to 70 to get a basic examination and preventative health screenings at their local community health center, a component of developing a nationwide culture of preventative healthcare.
“Now, every Albanian in this age group is eligible for a yearly checkup at their primary health care center, irrespective of their health insurance coverage,” says Dr. Alban Ylli, head of the Department of Epidemiology and Health Systems at IPH and coordinator of the team Sentell worked with. “The program was a major priority for the Ministry.”
Ylli says IPH applied to host a Fulbright Specialist because it needed an expert who could help navigate assessment methodologies and drafting instruments.
Sentell provided leadership in bringing together IPH and Ministry technicians, as well as experience in solving issues around program data management.
“As a result of her presence,” Ylli explains, “work went smoothly toward finalizing the program bulletin and making it a sustainable instrument for Albanian policy makers, managers, health professionals, and public, as well.”
Assessment started during Sentell's stay in Tirana, Albania's capital, and continued with the writing of a report about the Si Je program with Ylli and other Albanian colleagues.
A year and a half later, collaborating with Catherine Pirkle, a colleague at the University of Hawai‘i, they published their findings in the peer-reviewed journal Prevention Science.
As Ylli tells it, the network that emerged as a result of Sentell’s Fulbright experience has led to the publication of other papers and presentations at international conferences by a joint team of Albanian and U.S. health professionals.
For two consecutive years, Sentell and her Albanian hosts presented their findings at the European Public Health Association’s annual conference. This April, they will also share two separate projects -- one on lifelong health determinants and a second on adolescent pregnancies -- with an international audience at the World Conference on Health Promotion in New Zealand. Another paper bridging public health concerns in the U.S., Eastern Europe, and Latin America will be published in the South Eastern European Journal of Public Health.
A second component of Sentell’s Fulbright Specialist project took place at the University of Medicine, which had requested an expert to advise on its new Master of Public Health program. Sentell reviewed syllabi for eight courses to ensure the program met international standards and compared favorably with leading universities in terms of the quality and relevance of coursework.
She also delivered three lectures to graduate and undergraduate students focused on U.S. healthcare policy and systems. In addition, she met with a number of faculty members about their work and interests and discussed a future project on problematic drug use in Albania that could become an article for another peer-reviewed publication.
New opportunities also presented themselves at home when Sentell returned to the U.S. For example, she was asked to serve as a principal investigator for a major ongoing evaluation project about large-scale interventions for chronic disease in Hawai‘i.
Sentell says she would not have had the confidence and knowledge necessary to accept the leadership position had it not been for her experience as a Fulbright Specialist. In Albania, she gained a better understanding of the culture of prevention of chronic diseases for large-scale public health promotion efforts.
“Albania and Hawai‘i have similar population sizes and both places have health disparities among certain groups,” she says.
For Sentell, the benefits of being a Fulbright Specialist for three weeks far surpassed her expectations.
“I think the best part of academic relations is the collaborations you build over time and the surprising directions they take you.”
She adds: “The Fulbright Specialist Program expanded my focus. It got me into new networks, plugged me into other researchers working on public health issues in other countries and at home, and helped me build wonderful and productive connections."