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NMSU's Tilahun Adera visits home often, halfway around the globe

After fleeing Ethiopia because of political persecution by the country's communist regime more than 30 years ago, the last thing you'd expect someone to do is make the 8,000-mile, 17-hour plane trip from Las Cruces back to the African nation. Yet that's exactly what Tilahun Adera does - and he does it quite frequently.

Tilahun Adera, dean of New Mexico State University's College of Health and Social Services, fled Ethiopia because of political persecution more than 30 years ago. He now makes regular humanitarian trips back to the African nation. (NMSU Photo by Darren Phillips.)

> Adera, dean of New Mexico State University's College of Health and Social Services, was born in Debre Birhan, a city of more than 67,000 people that sits more than 9,000 feet above sea level. The city's name translates to "mountain of light" and it's where Adera went to elementary and high school.

A communist junta overthrew Ethiopia's emperor in 1974 and ruled the country for nearly 20 years. During that time, Adera fled Ethiopia for the United States, but he says he never forgot his homeland or its people.

"I've been very fortunate," Adera said. "I'm not sure I deserve all of what I've received in this life."

In the U.S., Adera received a master's degree in environmental health from Oregon State University, a second master's in epidemiology at the University of Washington and a doctorate degree in public health from Oregon State University. Before coming to NMSU, he served as the senior associate dean for public health and professor of epidemiology and community health at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine.

During his time in Virginia, Adera received a call from a pastor in Ethiopia who needed help building a community center badly needed in his home of Debre Birhan. The 62-year-old Adera and his wife donated to the cause, and Adera himself now makes regular trips back to Ethiopia, leading a team that helps with the construction. Once complete, the project will provide basic services for the community including services for children whose parents have died from HIV and AIDS.

"It's physical work, from sunup to sundown, and an exhilarating joy to make a difference in people's lives," he said. "It's also very encouraging to see the people of the town not giving up. The enthusiasm we bring from here is also something that is appreciated. Once complete, it will be a great asset to the town."

While in Debre Birhan, Adera also visits with family members and teaches, giving seminars in epidemiology in the school of medicine. After returning to the U.S., Adera spends his time spreading the word about the trade and educational opportunities his homeland now has to offer.

"Africa is a sleeping giant. It is rising," Adera said. "Economic development is just taking off despite the political strife and in-fighting. I want people to see Africa as a huge continent, full of educational opportunities for both faculty and students."

He said Ethiopia is now beginning to better utilize its water resources to prevent the widespread famine the country saw during the 1980s and 1990s. Countries in Europe and Asia are also creating economic ties to the nation. Adera says the country offers tremendous research possibilities, too, for those wanting to learn about water resources and tropical diseases.

"I would like for the university, and others, to take a second look at the opportunities there," he said. "But then again, I am biased."

In case you are interested in making the trip halfway around the world to visit Ethiopia, Adera says he typically has just two layovers, one in Denver and one in Frankfurt, Germany.