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Elsa Mekonnen, graduate Brittain Award recipient, looks to leave legacy of service
Elsa Mekonnen

In the depths of the COVID-19 pandemic, Elsa Mekonnen reflected on her drive to help others as a nurse. So it’s no surprise that during her master’s in nursing program, she became known for putting scholarship and service into practice.

— Stephen Nowland, Emory Photo/Video

During her time in a graduate student in Emory’s Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing, Elsa Mekonnen became known for putting scholarship and service into practice. As a Woodruff Fellow, a member of Sigma Theta Tau International Honor Society of Nursing and a registered nurse at Emory Healthcare for nearly a decade, she’s no stranger to teamwork.

Her peers describe her as a driven, passionate and kind clinician who centers patient care in everything she does — all while balancing her role as a working mother of two.

Mekonnen is the 2023 graduate student recipeint of the Marion Luther Brittain Award, considered the highest honor presented to an Emory University student.

In her nomination letter, her mentors note, “Elsa is everything one could hope for in a nurse and Woodruff Scholar. Always a team leader, she displays the compassion and understanding that is woven into every nurse.”

Reflecting on meaning 

As an Emory registered nurse, Mekonnen was a frontline worker during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I was questioning whether I wanted to put myself and my family at risk with something like this,” she says. “Coming to work was very stressful and I had to do some soul-searching to decide if this was the profession for me.”

Eventually, she realized how deeply she enjoyed helping people. “I didn’t want to put myself at unnecessary risk, but I felt it was a risk I could take. I knew how to protect myself while still helping others.” 

Still, she wanted to be able to do more and decided to pursue a master’s of science in nursing degree. “Being a provider was a way to expand my capabilities, so going to Emory to become a nurse practitioner was a perfect fit,” she says.

Those technical and clinical skills support Mekonnen’s current role as a research nurse practitioner in nephrologist Dr. Jeanie Park’s human integrative physiology laboratory at Emory’s School of Medicine.

“I take care of patients and advance scientific knowledge and nephrology. So I still get to help patients, which I wanted to do, and hopefully help medical science, too,” she says.

Giving back to the community

During Mekonnen’s undergraduate career at Virginia Tech, she spent one spring break on a service trip to New Orleans. A few days after that trip, the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting happened.

“That made me realize that life is very short and you don’t know what’s going to happen,” she says. “Whatever you do, make sure it has meaning, and use your actions to make the world a better place.”

In 2020, many people had a similar realization. So perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that someone who saw a global pandemic and dove more fully into health care prioritizes giving back to the community.

As a Woodruff Fellow, Mekonnen coordinated volunteer opportunities for other Woodruff Scholars and Fellows, including sorting medical supplies with MedShare in Decatur and gardening at Lullwater Preserve during Emory Cares Day. She also volunteered in Peru as part of an immersion trip through the Lillian Carter Center, the hub of global education for Emory’s School of Nursing. 

And when the World Health Organization declared 2020 the “Year of the Nurse,” Mekonnen didn’t just pat herself on the back. Instead, she found new ways to serve others.

During quarantine restrictions, she joined the Emory University chapter of Sigma Theta Tau as a nurse leader and volunteered as a community facilitator to share and collaborate on medical surgical nursing topics.

“It was a great way to stay engaged in my profession while furthering Sigma’s mission to ‘develop nursing leaders anywhere to improve health care everywhere.’”

This drive to serve others has blossomed, thanks to multiple events in Mekonnen’s life. “As a child of immigrants from Ethiopia, I am reminded of how lucky I am to have access to these opportunities,” she says.

Mekonnen sees herself as a “little guy volunteer” who frequently signs up for behind-the-scenes projects, such as collecting trash — a good reminder that small actions can have a great impact.

Leaving a legacy of service

When Mekonnen found out she won the graduate Brittain Award, it was a typical Saturday night: she was lying on the couch at home, watching a movie with her daughters and husband.

“I was shocked! I yelled when I saw the email,” she recalls. “While I am deeply grateful for the recognition, receiving the Brittain Award propels me to find more ways to give back and serve. Learning more about Dr. Brittain's dedication and leadership also encourages me to find my own path in leaving a legacy of service.”

Mekonnen hopes to be the best role model of a kind and hard-working person for her children, as well as a fun-loving and caring friend, mother, daughter and wife. Meanwhile, she’ll continue to advocate for fair and quality health care; protect patient rights while advancing excellence in patient care; and remain humble, knowing that continual learning and reflection are important parts of the process.

“The mottos of my alma maters sum up my personal frame of mind,” Mekonnen says. “Virginia Tech’s Ut prosim, ‘That I may serve,’ Georgia State’s Veritas valet et vincet, ‘Truth is valuable and shall overcome,’ and Emory’s Cor prudentis possidebit scientiam, ‘The wise heart seeks knowledge.’”

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