UNCG graduate student Natalie Hengstebeck has been interested in relationships for a long time.
“I knew it was going to be couples in my career,” she says. “Before I found my calling in research, I thought I would be a wedding planner, couples’ therapist or a divorce attorney.”
Research projects and a study abroad trip to the Netherlands, while she was an undergraduate at DePaul University, opened her eyes to the impact that government policy (or the lack thereof) can have on couples’ relationships.
That interest brought Hengstebeck to UNCG and has matured into research that helped her win a Fulbright Scholarship for nine months of research in the Netherlands and a summer at RAND Corp.
“I just realized it would be easier to be a couple in other places,” she says. “Learning about other places got me interested in what we could do for couples here in the United States.”
She came to UNCG to study with Dr. Heather Helms, an associate professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies. Hengstebeck was interested in Helms’ research on Mexican immigrants who disproportionately face stress due to legal status, poverty and other challenges.
“You think about family separation, fear of deportation, and regular discrimination,” she explains. “That’s a very stressful situation in which to attempt to maintain healthy relationships.”
After hearing a Dutch researcher talk about her research on how government policy affects relationships between grandparents, parents, and grandchildren, Hengstebeck decided she wanted to apply similar techniques to the study of couples.
With help from Dr. Daniel Perlman, a UNCG professor, Hengstebeck wrangled an introduction to the researcher — Dr. Pearl Dykstra of Erasmus University Rotterdam. After meeting with Hengstebeck and her professors, Dykstra agreed to support her Fulbright application.
During her nine-month Fulbright, Hengstebeck will focus on how policy differences between nations affect couples’ relationship dynamics. She’ll use data from surveys administered in 15 European countries to large, representative samples of the population. Hengstebeck aims to look at how satisfied couples are with their relationship and how satisfaction varies across different policy approaches.
Her Fulbright starts in August. Before she flies off to Rotterdam, she’ll spend the summer in California at RAND Corp. She’s been hired as one of about 30 graduate student summer associates. The program receives more than 600 applications each year.
At RAND, she’ll study the impact of deployment on military service members’ family relationships.
Hengstebeck, a first-generation college student, said the support she has gotten at UNCG is invaluable.
“Dr. Helms, in particular, really opened a lot of doors,” she says. “I am so grateful for the investment she and others have made in me to enable me to pursue these opportunities.”
Hengstebeck has been more than just an exceptional student. This year, she won the Gladys Strawn Bullard Award, given each year to one student, one staff member, and one faculty member for their service contributions and leadership to UNCG.
She’ll return to UNCG in 2016, after her Fulbright, to complete her doctoral dissertation research.
Photograph by Martin Kane