From the farm to the world: A scholarship opened a world of possibilities; now she plans to give back

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Burnett Society member Susanna Von Essen grew up a farm girl. She was raised just outside Pender, Nebraska, a town of about 1,100 people that sits along the Logan Creek.

Susanna’s parents had a farm where they grew corn, soybeans and alfalfa hay and raised cattle, pigs, chickens and geese. Susanna loved helping on the farm. She hoed cockleburs in the cornfields, stacked alfalfa hay and fed the calves. She harvested fruit and vegetables from the garden and gathered eggs from the henhouse. She was fascinated by nature and spent time discovering new types of plants and learning about animals.

As a young girl, Susanna had everything she needed. She attended a two-room country schoolhouse, which she adored. She had room to play and an environment that sparked a natural curiosity, which stayed with her for life. But it was her father’s struggles on the farm that led Susanna to her life’s calling and, ultimately, her plans to give back to the next generation. When he began raising hogs, Herman Von Essen developed severe respiratory problems. A German immigrant, he was strong and stoic, and it was unnerving to see him struggling to breathe.

“­That left a deep impression on me,” she said.

The experience of watching her father prompted Susanna to spend years helping farmers breathe easier as a highly respected and accomplished pulmonologist. But she couldn’t have done it without a life-changing scholarship.

Having always been a good student, Susanna knew she could get into medical school if she applied. But she wasn’t sure how to make it happen. Her father’s pulmonary illness was progressing, and the medical bills were piling up. So she applied for every scholarship she could find. Finally, she received a letter informing her she had been awarded a four-year Regents Scholarship to the University of Nebraska–Lincoln.

“I can still remember the moment I got that letter,” she said.

Susanna majored in zoology and German at UNL. She loved Lincoln and city life and was happy to spread her wings without being too far from home, where she was still needed.

It was halfway through her junior year that Susanna’s father passed. She knew it was coming and had worked ahead in all her classes to be ready.

“I had to be strong for my mother,” she said, “and not add to her worries by letting my grades slip.”

Susanna knew she likely would not have attended the university if not for her scholarship. But after her dad passed, she was certain she would not have graduated without it.

As a senior at UNL, Susanna applied for a Fulbright scholarship to study parasitology in Germany and also applied to medical school in the U.S. She received good news on both. After completing her Fulbright year, she enrolled in medical school at Washington University in St. Louis. She came back to Nebraska to complete her residency and became the University of Nebraska Medical

Center’s first pulmonology fellow. Later, she joined the UNMC faculty and began researching agricultural health.

“I collected grain dust from our hometown grain elevator,” she said, “and did a variety of research.”

Susanna led UNMC’s Rural Research Initiative, in which she worked to strengthen UNMC’s rural outreach. She conducted free lung screenings for farmers during Husker Harvest Days and treated countless men and women suffering from pulmonary diseases.

As a researcher, physician and academic, Susanna has directly impacted thousands of lives. But she knew what a difference it made for her to receive the Regents Scholarship and decided to give back even more.

“In reflecting on my work life and the money I’ve saved, I really wanted to give a chance to other rural students,” she said. “­There are students in need in every community, but I wanted to give a leg up to somebody who maybe faced some of the same struggles that I did.”

Susanna has established bequests for both UNL and UNMC to support student scholarships. She hopes her gifts can enable students to not only attend the university but also free them up for research projects.

“Whether you go on to graduate studies or medical school, those projects are so important for the next step,” she said. “Research takes time, so the scholarship can be very freeing.”

Susanna knows how much she owes to her education. It brought her to a new world of possibilities outside the farm while allowing her to stay rooted in the life she loved there.

It was an experience the impact of which can still be felt in Susanna’s work and contributions to the field of agricultural health. And now, it’s an experience she hopes to pass on.            

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