Making a Difference in the World
USU Alumni Jessica Barney-Tilahun recently addressed dietetics
Making a Difference in the World
Growing up in a small farming community didn’t stop Utah State University graduate, Jessica Barney-Tilahun, from pursuing her dream of seeing the world.
Since her journey began, she has spread knowledge of nutrition to Moldova, India, South Sudan and other countries around the world. She continues the effort now through her own Ethiopia-based consulting business as she works on a national nutrition strategy with the United Nations and the Ethiopian government.
Her time at Utah State University provided a valuable foundation for her future success. She was involved in the Peace Corps at USU and helped to organize events and activities with the student government. As a peer counselor at the counseling center, she realized how much she enjoyed working with people one-on-one. But it was from former USU professor Paul Savello that she gained her greatest inspiration. Savello was able to balance living in a small city in northern Utah and going abroad and doing the same kind of work that she hoped to do one day.
“It was his example — showing he had a normal life, and yet having the life I wanted working overseas,” she said.
In early September, Barney-Tilahun presented her experiences to students and faculty at USU. As she showed off some of the many treasures she’s accumulated from her travels, she spoke with passion about the world’s need of proper nutrition. The down-to-earth atmosphere brought something extra to her many stories of children suffering from malnutrition. Taking surveys and rapid assessments in rural areas of Ethiopia have helped her further develop an early warning system for the Ethiopian government to notify people in case of a disaster.
Upon graduation from Utah State in 2000 with an undergraduate degree in Dietetics, Barney-Tilahun began working for a WIC (Women, Infants, and Children) clinic in Salt Lake County and stayed there for almost two years as a breast feeding advocate. Following WIC, she completed one of her lifelong goals and joined the Peace Corps working in the Republic of Moldova, a country in Eastern Europe.
“Ever since I was six years old I wanted to join the Peace Corps,” Barney-Tilahun said.
In Moldova she taught health education at high schools and at a community college. She also worked at a free women's clinic at a local hospital, helped run summer camps for at-risk and orphaned children, and she became fluent in the Moldovan and Romanian languages.
It was in Moldova that she realized she had been naïve about the ways of the world. Now that she better understands the freedoms U.S. citizens fight to protect, Barney-Tilahun said that she’s more pro-American than she was when she actually lived in the United States.
“I feel like I’m a better American now,” Barney-Tilahun said. “I discovered what it really means to be American. It means standing up for ourselves.”
“When we see that something is wrong, we can work to fix it,” she said. “We can’t be silenced. I like having my own opinion. I can speak without fear.”
During her time in the Peace Corps, Barney- Tilahun decided to go back to school for a master’s degree, something she never anticipated. She returned to the states just long enough to attend a dual program with Tufts University and Harvard School of Public Health in Boston, Mass. At school, a door opened that allowed her to take an internship with UNICEF in Northern India, an experience she holds dear to her heart.
Barney-Tilahun received her master’s degree in Food Policy and Applied Nutrition with a dual emphasis in Nutrition Program Development and Humanitarian Crises, both designed to prepare humanitarian workers for natural disasters, refugee camps and other programs.
After receiving her master’s degree, she took a position with GOAL, an Irish-based Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) in Ethiopia. It was there she met her future husband, a native Ethiopian, who she married in June 2007.
Jessica Barney-Tilahun currently lives with her husband in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where she consults for the Micronutrient Initiative and United Nations. Her goal is to build solid nutrition programming and national strategies for Ethiopia.