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New Faces: Betty Burston

Marrying health care with pop culture, Betty Burston is revolutionizing the health care industry one “edutainment” project at a time.

People  |  May 16, 2016  |  By Chelsea Sendgraff
Betty Burston

Betty Burston, health care administration assistant professor-in-residence

From marching with Martin Luther King, Jr. in the civil rights movement to becoming a college professor at the age of 22, Betty Burston, assistant-professor-in-residence in the School of Community Health Sciences, always has been one to revolutionize.

Blurring the lines between pop culture and public service announcements, Burston’s “edutainment” work subtly educates the public by embedding social issues and health care information into entertainment. Her novels, films, songs, poetry, and even television series have covered youth violence, mental health, hypertension, educational equity, long-term care, and more.

Why UNLV?

Because of my husband’s work as an independent filmmaker, it either had to be Los Angeles or Las Vegas. Because of UNLV’s athletic program, he was more interested in Vegas than L.A. He’s also done a lot of stage plays here. I love UNLV. UNLV is such a diverse student body, and I love that. It’s like having loads of grandchildren. My colleagues are as excited about making things happen that will have significance as I am. It’s a wonderful experience.

Tell us more about the “edutainment” projects you have worked on?

If you were to Google me, you would find a couple of films that my husband produced and I co-wrote that have health care messages embedded in them. There is one called The Road to Damascus. The message has to do with the stigma of mental illness, but it is embedded in such a way that it doesn’t preach the way other health care promotional and prevention videos do. There’s a series called Hypertension Lesson One, which includes 25 lessons for people who have hypertension to increase medication adherence. It was housed in hospitals and kiosks around the country and can be found on YouTube now.

I’ve written some songs. I’ve published poetry. I have four novels. I wrote a novel called 24/7 that looks at youth violence in Washington, D.C. Another of my novels is called The Deposition. Joshua’s Harvest is about vampires but actually has a health care theme. Get Thee Behind Me is a novel that goes with a television series my husband created.

What is the biggest misconception of your field?

In England, “edutainment” has grown, but in the United States little attention has been paid toward edutainment and disseminating knowledge about health care. It’s a new field, and that’s what I like. I like going in directions that are different.

What has been the proudest moment in your life?

I don’t experience pride in that way. I’ve had a very happy life. I’ve never cared about money, and because of that, I’ve just been able to pursue the things that I enjoy. I enjoy teaching. I enjoy creativity. I enjoy academic work. I’m a really happy person.

What is your one tip for success?

For people to recognize that happiness is a choice. Many people don’t know that. Don’t be competitive. Each of us has our basket of resources with which to work. When we use that and do the best we can, there’s never any need to compete with others. You can’t do any better and you aren’t going to do any worse, so why compete?

If you could fix one thing in the world, what would it be?

I call it tribalism. Other people call it racism and discrimination, but when you use old words for the same problems, you end up thinking that the problem is the same. What we are experiencing today is tribalism, not racism like what I experienced when I was growing up. There is no space for tribalism anymore. How can we, all of the tribes, come together as partners with cooperation instead of conflict so that we can create a society that is mutually beneficial for everyone? When you begin thinking about the vastness of the universe, tribalism becomes such a petty, regressive type of behavior.

What is one object in your office that has significance to you and why?

I have 10 folding chairs in my office. I keep those chairs there because I have group projects, and the groups will come in and go over their projects in my office. Those chairs have significance for me because it means that the students are learning to work in a group. They are learning management and leadership skills.

Who is your hero?

Good people. My father was my hero. He is a very strong person and such a good person. I learned the whole notion of just being a good person from my father.

What kind of professor do you want to be known as?

A fair one and one that stimulates the application of knowledge. I run a democratic classroom where I offer the students input into what we’re doing. I trust my students. As I tell them, health care is not a field where you can afford to be a “C” student. If you were in the emergency room, would you want to look up and see a “C” student taking care of you? A “C” student as the administrator of the hospital? I think not. In health care, when you are less than what you can be, people can die or institutions can get sued. That’s why I emphasize with my students truly embracing the knowledge and getting out of each class with the maximum degree of knowledge.