The College of Health and Behavioral Sciences Department of Nutrition and Family Sciences has a long history of service-learning at both the undergraduate and graduate levels.
Service-learning is a way for students to tackle authentic problems, wrestle with complicated issues, serve communities with vigor and achieve learning objectives. While the family and consumer sciences program at the University of Central Arkansas is heavily invested in service-learning opportunities and has three faculty fellows, I will focus on my experience in nutrition.
In an average academic year, our nutrition and dietetics students provide more than 10,000 hours of service to local community partners. Our undergraduate students have worked at Ola and John Hawks Senior Wellness and Activity Center to provide a theme meal for seniors. They prepared quality food and worked with food service facilities to develop food safety protocols and proposals for kitchen renovations. Students also collaborated with elementary students and school nutrition personnel to develop new, kid-friendly recipes that meet federal nutrition guidelines.
In other classes, students planted fruit trees and blueberry bushes at the Faulkner County Urban Farm, worked with Life Choices to provide needed supplies to clients and even helped with voter registration activities in the community. Most recently, we have worked with a local community program, in conjunction with Delta Dental Foundation of Arkansas, to deliver an integrated and multi-phase intervention to parents, staff and students at Head Start centers throughout central Arkansas.
Over the years, the department’s list of service-learning projects has expanded and gained momentum. These activities provide a value-added experience for students that develops their professional behaviors and demeanor, allows opportunities to practice critical thinking and problem-solving in real-time and gives future employers the chance to see our students in action.
One key component of service-learning is the reflection students provide after they have completed an activity. Some of the most impactful moments of my career have come from reading and listening to the students’ reflections. As I read through their assignments, I am encouraged to see words like “commitment,” “determination,” “impact” and “compassion.”
Maggie Waltrip ’20 is a dietetic intern working on her master’s degree in nutrition. Part of her service-learning included working with Head Start programs and at a senior center. In each of her experiences, she enjoyed getting to know the people she was helping as she learned.
“The experience has been invaluable to me in reaffirming my desire to serve others through my profession,” Waltrip said. “I also feel like these experiences will help me in future career endeavors since I am building relationships with nutrition professionals who get to see the quality of my work and my heart for the children.”
By the end of her experience at the senior center, Waltrip knew “Steve was vegan, Larry ate anything, and two ladies who were best of friends caused so much drama! The seniors would check in on us and how school was going, and they challenged us to be better people.”
Crossjean “CJ” Sy, another dietetic intern earning a graduate degree in nutrition, has a passion for disease prevention.
“These kids are our future,” he said. “My goal in this internship, my future career and life in general is to provide a welcoming and safe interaction with all I encounter – regardless of color, size, shape, gender or name. I give these kids my best and hope it makes a difference in their lives because it has made a huge difference in me!”
Working through these service projects helps me to know my students better. As a faculty member, I have gained a deeper respect for students and how their history has shaped their perspective, integrity and desire to learn. As students reveal more about their learning styles, comprehension and application, I am able to better adapt coursework to meet their needs. Service-learning encourages me to be more open, think more deeply and invest completely in my students’ success as nutrition professionals.
As an alumnus, when I think about the impact UCA had on my career, I fondly remember those experiences helping others and working toward common goals. That’s what brought me back to UCA to teach. Graduates tell me that learning in this way set them apart in the job market and helped them to learn more about who they want to become as a person and as a professional.
Acts of service enhance the lives of all involved and strengthen the values of those serving. Allowing students to work alongside community members gives them confidence and allows them to see how others value their skills and talents. While some of the assignments are purely didactic, striving toward service-learning and determining ways to embrace these diverse community relationships makes us all stronger.
Alicia Landry ’04 is a registered dietitian and associate professor in the Department of Nutrition and Family Sciences. In addition to a bachelor of science degree in nutrition, Landry also earned a masters in nutrition and a doctorate in nutrition and food systems.