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Opportunity, Unlimited

A dietetics program at Fontbonne revitalizes grad students – and their career goals.

This article originally appeared in the March 2013 issue of Tableaux.

What happens when a good student spends four years studying to become a registered dietitian, then can’t secure the internship needed to take the next step?

“I felt lost and miserable,” said Annalise Shumway, an ordinarily animated St. Louis native who earned an undergraduate degree in dietetics from Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. When she couldn’t find an internship, however, she saw the end of her career path before it even began.

As she continued to search for internship opportunities, Shumway, still living in Utah, learned about Fontbonne University’s Individualized Supervised Practice Pathways (ISPPs) program, a new opportunity developed by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (formerly the American Dietetic Association). The program addresses a prevalent problem within the dietetics field — approximately half of all dietetics students in the United States can’t secure an internship, a critical requirement before becoming an RD. According to Dr. Cheryl Houston, professor and director of Fontbonne’s dietetics program, an increased interest in nutrition and health has inflated the number of dietetics students across the country. Accredited supervised practice program opportunities just haven’t kept up, leaving students like Shumway with very few options.

To receive an accredited supervised practice position, students go through a computerized matching process. If they’re not chosen in the first round or two, their opportunities become increasingly limited as other students graduate and enter the pool. Unmatched students can apply for distance programs, which require them to secure their own internship positions with willing and accredited preceptors, or mentors, but these may take months or even a year to secure, putting the students offtrack — if they find anything at all.

“That’s one of the benefits to coming to Fontbonne,” said Jaimette McCulley, assistant professor and experiential coordinator of the ISPPs program. “We line up preceptors for the students.” This past fall, Fontbonne admitted its first 12 students to the program, all unmatched dietetics and nutrition graduates. As ISPPs students, they enrolled in the human environmental sciences graduate program with a concentration in multidisciplinary health communication studies. In conjunction with the master’s degree, students are matched with an accredited practice position that fulfills the same criteria as any other dietetic internship. With Fontbonne’s extensive network of dietetics alumni, Houston and McCulley easily found RDs eager to become preceptors. Now, not only will students get the supervised practice they need, they’ll earn a master’s degree in the process.

“One of the most important things about this program for me is that the master’s is not nutrition-based,” said Morgan Osborne, a member of Fontbonne’s ISPPs class who holds a bachelor’s degree in culinary nutrition from Johnson and Wales University in Providence, R.I., as well as an associate degree in culinary arts. “I already have a degree in nutrition, and I really wanted to broaden my spectrum of knowledge. This offers other avenues, including one in health communication.”

The students enrolled in the Fontbonne program all have stories similar to Shumway and Osborne. When they weren’t matched with an internship, they felt defeated. But acceptance into the Fontbonne program gave them new hope. With a year of academic study under their belts, they’ll start internships in May, graduate at the end of the year, and then sit for the national dietetic exam. Most importantly, they are able to continue pursuing their career goals.

As a woman who grew up and attended grade school right around the corner from Fontbonne’s Clayton campus, Shumway is surprised she ended up here. But although she is now further away from the Utah ski slopes she loves, she said she’s grateful for the professional opportunity and for the nurturing atmosphere in which she has found herself.

“Professors here really take the time to care about you,” she said, noting the 30,000 students at her undergraduate alma mater. “They ask, ‘How can we help you meet your goals? Fontbonne is personalized, and this really pays tribute to the school’s small size.”

Photo Caption: Jaimette McCulley (far right), assistant professor and director of the Individualized Supervised Practice Pathways program, works with students (l–r) Morgan Osborne, Laura Schermes and Annalise Shumway.