Intentional living

Jill (Owen), ’82, and David Engelstad, ’90, bring physical therapy and engineering expertise to American Samoa

The Engelstad’s shared commitment to service has taken them around the world. Image courtesy of UND Alumni Association & Foundation.

On the walls of David and Jill Engelstad’s home in American Samoa hang many reflections of the United Nation’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals, a global call to action for the improvement of humankind and planet Earth. For David, ’90, and Jill (Owen), ’82, the pictures and artifacts serve as a guide to intentional living.

The Engelstads met after graduating from UND. While their educations differed – David studied civil engineering and Jill physical therapy – their hearts for working with underserved populations aligned. David started his career with the federal Indian Health Service, improving water and sanitation structures on Arizona’s Navajo Nation. Jill traveled with him, providing physical therapy and preoperative care for Native patients.

“We’re so lucky to have that experience. That’s when we became quite the team,” said Jill.

David’s career as a Commissioned Corps Engineer with the Public Health Service took the couple to a new home nearly every five years. Jill took on a new physical therapy job at each site, earned her master’s degree in global affairs, and traveled internationally on medical mission trips. Their exposure to inequalities broadened with every relocation.

“Professionally, with every decade of life, we’re having more of these experiences that really show the economic imbalances of life and populations. We came to a point of questioning, ‘What do we do with this?’” said David.

The United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals have motivated the Engelstads’ living and giving practices. Image courtesy of UND Alumni Association & Foundation.

Their solution was to travel further into the heart of the issue in American Samoa, a U.S. Territory that is made up of five main islands in the South Pacific. In 2019, David accepted a job providing in-house capacity building with the American Samoa Environmental Protection Agency. He is one of the only engineers in American Samoa.

Meanwhile, Jill’s broad physical therapy clinical experience made her the perfect candidate to build a rehabilitation program for the first-ever total knee replacement surgeries completed in the South Pacific. Under her leadership, the island’s only hospital, Lyndon B. Johnson Tropical Medical Center, now offers specialized physical therapy treatment – a significant milestone for the hospital and its patients.

For David and Jill, both in their early 60s, uprooting overseas was just another step in their adventurous life journey of service. The Engelstads opted out of government housing and live in a village on Tutuila, the main island of American Samoa. Exploring the tropical paradise has been a favorite pastime along with learning the Samoan language and culture, building relationships with locals, and helping neighbors.

Children from the Engelstad’s Tutuila neighborhood surprise Jill Engelstad with locally made birthday gifts. Image courtesy of UND Alumni Association & Foundation.

Sustainable Development Goal #4 – Quality Education – is what motivates their giving to UND. The Engelstads have learned firsthand the value of education and hope to make a difference by supporting first-generation college students and women studying engineering.

“The opportunity of education has opened up the world for us,” said David. “We’re grateful for that gift we’ve been given, and whatever we can do to support it with our means, we do.”

While they embark on their second year in American Samoa and David approaches mandatory active-duty retirement, the couple is not planning on slowing down; rather, their eyes are set on their next service destination: Africa.

“We feel like, in a way, we’re just beginning another exciting chapter,” said David.

This story originally appeared in the UND Alumni Magazine.

Jenn Lukens

About the author

Jenn Lukens is associate director of communications for the UND Alumni Association & Foundation.