SRU professor completes Fulbright program in Sri Lanka


Professor in Sri Lanka

Barbara Billek-Sawhney, Slippery Rock University professor of physical therapy, visited the Nine Arches Bridge while in Sri Lanka. Billek-Sawhney instructed students and faculty at the University of Peradeniya in Sri Lanka, April 22 to June 2, as part of a Fulbright Specialist Program.

Aug. 7, 2018

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. - For Barbara Billek-Sawhney, Slippery Rock University professor of physical therapy, the three-year process of becoming a Fulbright scholar was well worth the effort.

She just needed the right timing, the right host institution and, of course, to get all the paperwork completed to be selected for the competitive U.S. Department of State-sponsored exchange program.

"My family would start teasing me that I'm only half-bright," said Billek-Sawhney, who first applied for the Fulbright in January 2015 and was accepted as a candidate 10 months later. "At one point I said I'm not going to continue to follow through with this. But it worked out perfectly. There were lots of stars that aligned."

Swahney Headshot


The Fulbright Program awards approximately 8,000 grants annually, pairing highly qualified U.S. academics and professionals with host institutions abroad to share their expertise, strengthen institutional linkages, hone their skills, gain international experience and learn about other cultures.

Through the Fulbright Specialist Program, Billek-Sawhney mentored faculty, students and professionals, April 22 to June 2, at the University of Peradeniya in Sri Lanka. While in Sri Lanka, Billek-Sawhney instructed more than 300 undergraduate physical therapy students, served as the keynote speaker of Peradeniya's Physiotherapy Congress, conducted workshops for professional physical therapists in Sri Lanka and consulted Peradeniya faculty and administrators as they work to improve their physical therapy curriculum, or physiotherapy as it is known outside the U.S.

Peradeniya's physiotherapy department was started in 2006 and, according to Billek-Sawhney, physical therapy practices across all of Sri Lanka are decades behind other countries. Sri Lanka particularly lags in the specialty areas of geriatrics and screening for diseases related to neuromuscular and musculoskeletal problems, such as Parkinson's disease and multiple sclerosis.

"The material they are teaching doesn't have the influence of some other countries," said Billek-Sawhney, who taught Peradeniya's first geriatric physical therapy class and introduced treatment techniques related to motor learning, motor control, neuroplasticity and rehabilitation. "Because (Sri Lanka) is a somewhat isolated country, they don't have many people going there to volunteer to raise the level of care."

The experience in Sri Lanka completed a globetrotting year for Billek-Sawhney, who took a teaching sabbatical from SRU once she received her Fulbright appointment. During her time away from The Rock, Billek-Sawhney completed two service-learning programs: one in January with the Health Volunteers Overseas to establish physical therapy relations in Peru, and another in October through the Jackson Clinics teaching the first doctorate-level physical therapy program in Ethiopia.

"(Being a Fulbright Scholar) is such an honor and I'm so thankful," said Billek-Sawhney, who became one of more than 370,000 "Fulbrighters," including Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winners, since the program was created 70 years ago. "I'm just humbled by the experience and the opportunity."

Billek-Sawhney was able to take advantage of SRU's existing exchange partnership with the University of Peradeniya, as the institutions signed a memorandum of understanding in 2014. This was her second visit to Sri Lanka, having accompanied five SRU students there in 2016 as part of an international travel experience.

Even when she's not traveling the world or teaching SRU students, Billek-Sawhney continues to maintain clinical practice as a "casual-call" physical therapist for Butler Health System and HealthSouth Harmarville Rehabilitation Hospital. To remain current in their fields and maintain their board certifications, physical therapy faculty often treat patients in clinics, but Billek-Sawhney doesn't look at it as a burden.

"I've been really fortunate to find a profession that matched me," said Billek-Sawhney, who grew up in Butler as the daughter of a nurse and a steelworker. "It's a physical profession but it's also cognitive. They call it the science of healing and the art of caring, and I believe in that. We think we are touching patients' lives but they touch our lives, too."

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