The Nutrition Peers, six seniors in the Dietetics Program in the department of food science and human nutrition, provide workshops, interactive games, awareness campaigns and educational materials that teach people the ABCs of eating well.
“Our main mission is to serve the students on the UI campus, but if a community group requests us, we’re available and if the Peers want to do it, they will,” said Justine Karduck, nutrition education coordinator/Sportwell coordinator at McKinley Health Center. A registered dietitian, Karduck co-coordinates the Nutrition Peers with Bethni Gill, who also is an R.D. and staff member in McKinley’s Nutrition Education Program.
The Nutrition Peers average 30-40 program requests each academic year – “so it keeps us pretty busy,” Karduck said.
Requests for workshops – learning more about sports nutrition or assembling healthy plates at buffets are two standard presentations – are made online from McKinley Health Center’s website or by calling its health education department. The Peers also can custom design programming.
In addition to offering workshops on preparing healthy snacks and separating fact from fiction about dieting, the Nutrition Peers this academic year have participated in health fairs for students and parents at two Champaign schools and assisted with the after-school program for children at Orchard Downs, the family and graduate housing complex on campus. In the past Peers have worked with local Brownie troops and at Clark-Lindsey Retirement Village in Urbana.
“The Peers spend a lot of time working on materials, going to programs and presenting, but in the end, I think they come out much better presenters and have a nice variety of experiences,” Karduck said. “When they go into their career, they can say they’ve worked with children, families, the elderly and other groups they never would have had the opportunity to work with in the classroom.”
Among the events on their agenda for the spring semester: the annual Runners Clinic that helps students get a leg up – nutritionally speaking – on their competitors in the Illinois Marathon; a table tent educational campaign for Eating Disorders Awareness Week; and the semiannual Stress Less Party, hosted each semester by another of McKinley’s peer-education groups, the Stress Management Peers, to help harried students lower tension and have fun during midterms.
During the fall semester, Nutrition Peers Colleen Koehler, 21, of St. Charles, Ill., and Rachel Eckhoff, 21, of Pontiac, Ill., went grocery shopping with an international student who requested the Peers’ help because he was confused by the terminology on food labels, such as “skim” and “whole” milk.
“We went to County Market on campus because that’s where he said he usually shopped, asked him what he normally would purchase and showed him healthy alternatives,” Koehler said.
The first and third Wednesdays of every month, the Nutrition Peers host Wellzone Checkups at the Activities and Recreation Center in conjunction with the Fitness Peers, another of the student-education groups sponsored by McKinley. Students can obtain free body-composition analyses and blood pressure checks and refuel on healthy snacks such as smoothies or trail mix.
The checkups, like other events the Nutrition Peers participate in, are also opportunities for the public to ask the student dietitians questions. Queries can range from the general – “What should I be eating?” – to the very specific, such as “How much protein should I be eating?” or “Should I avoid monosodium glutamate?”
“I constantly have to be on my toes because I never know what questions I will be asked,” said Melissa Sorrells, 21, of Mount Sterling, Ill. “I have not had any questions stump me so far, but I have had to adjust how I explain certain concepts to different age groups.”
Graduate students in dietetics and kinesiology, and health care professionals from the Sportwell Center, McKinley Health Center’s sports medicine clinic, provide backup in answering questions, and people may be directed to Gill or Karduck if the expertise of an R.D. is needed.
Like several of the peers, Eckhoff said she became interested in volunteering as a Nutrition Peer because “it’s an application of everything that we dietetics students have learned in our classes. It gives us a chance to actually use the knowledge that we’ve learned and apply it to other people.”
Working with the public – and responding to their questions – is a great segue from the classroom to professional practice, several of the peers said.
“I really enjoy talking to people, getting to know them and, hopefully, teaching them something,” Koehler added. “I knew that I wanted to go into a job where I’d be able to interact with people on a daily basis. I love kids and loved that I’d have the opportunity to go to elementary schools as a Nutrition Peer. That’s probably the reason that I want to work in the community – you get such a wide range of ages, genders and different lifestyles.”
Koehler once dreamed of becoming a chef – until a high school cooking class prompted the realization that she didn’t want to spend every day working in a sweltering kitchen. Majoring in dietetics, a rigorous curriculum that encompasses courses in nutrition – as well as food service production, chemistry, microbiology, psychology and anatomy and physiology – enables Koehler to indulge her passion for food and cooking in accordance with the holistic philosophy of wellness that she learned at home.
“My mom has always emphasized health – preventing disease instead of dealing with it when it comes upon you,” Koehler said.
Every spring, students who are juniors in dietetics are eligible to apply to become Nutrition Peers during their senior year if they have taken the prerequisite course, “Communication in Nutrition,” Food Science and Human Nutrition 329, which trains students in individual counseling and public speaking.
Along with Eckhoff, Koehler and Sorrells, the Nutrition Peers for this academic year are Sara Ausmus, 21, of Toledo, Ill.; Sarah Kenney, 21, of Peoria, Ill.; and Liz Reynolds, 21, of Springfield, Ill.
“We don’t always take the students that have the highest grade-point-average or the most experience,” Karduck said. “We try to get a diverse group so that we can make the most impact. It’s a big time commitment for the peers, but in turn they also get good experience with public speaking and leadership and the opportunity for us to write them a letter of recommendation for an internship.”
A supervised accredited internship of eight to 12 months – at a health care facility, community agency or food-service corporation that gives the intern experience in clinical and community practice as well as management experience – is required after graduation in order to take the national board exam to become a registered dietitian. Volunteer work such as that with the Nutrition Peers can enhance students’ competitiveness for post-college internships.
Illinois’ graduates are accepted into dietetic internships and pass the R.D. exam at rates – and with scores – consistently higher than the national average, said Karen Plawecki, director of the Didactic Program in Dietetics.
When the fall semester begins, the Nutrition Peers start rehearsing presentations and cooking demonstrations, while being peppered with common – and even uncommon questions – that audience members might ask. Throughout training and the academic year, the students receive regular feedback from the group’s coordinators and graduate assistants. This year, for the first time, the peers are using a 360-degree performance review system, anonymously evaluating each other’s work and their own, Karduck said.