Hands-on Learning Beyond the Classroom

TCC Dietetic students gain real-world experience.

You’d better watch what you eat!

If you don’t, Christina Liew-Newville, director of TCC Southeast’s Dietary Technician Program, will. And so will her students Deborah Johnson, Diana Moyo and Jennifer Adams.

Oh, they might not have their eyes on you personally, but they and many of the other dietetics students are carrying the message of healthy eating into sites throughout Tarrant County.

According to Johnson, students in some schools can attend classes and be able to sit for the examination to become a Registered Dietary Technician (DTR) without having any hands-on experience.

That’s not for TCC, where the emphasis is not only hands-on, but hearts on. The technician must have a thorough knowledge of diets and nutrition, sure, but also must be able to connect with their patients and clients. Little is accomplished by haranguing someone who’s overweight or who exists on junk food.

The students are taught, rather, that obesity may be a symptom of underlying health or psychological issues. Moyo admitted to sometimes having been judgmental “before I had all this information, but now I realize there are so many other reasons (besides overeating).”

“We don’t talk about restrictions and come across like we want to restrict you,” Johnson said. “What we want is to help you come to a knowledge of a way to eat that makes your body healthier.”

That doesn’t necessarily mean eating healthy all day, every day, ruling out the occasional ice cream sundae or barbecued brisket. “The one thing we’re taught is that there’s a food-life balance,” Johnson said. “You’re going to go to a birthday party or a graduation celebration. It’s about balance.”

The students have plenty of opportunities to bring both their expertise and empathy into play. On-site practicums span three 16-week semesters – one for dietary, one for community and one for clinical – providing 450 hours of training. “We try to place them based on their interest and the distance of the site from where they live,” Liew-Newville said.

That might be in a hospital, food bank, childcare facility, home health care setting or public school cafeteria. Students spend two days a week per site for five to six weeks – time enough to get a general familiarity but not total immersion. “It feels like you’re that new employee who didn’t quite get all the new employee training,” Adams said. “It’s sort of like you’re an intern.”

None of the trio had done the clinical component, generally reserved for last semester, so, when asked to pick a favorite, they were limited to the dietary and community experiences.

Moyo chose her service in the Tarrant County WIC (Women, Infants, Children) Program that provides services to pregnant, postpartum and breastfeeding women, as well as infants and children under the age of 5. “That’s because it was all about pregnant moms, breastfeeding moms and babies,” she said. “I can be with kids all day, so that was someplace where I wish I’d had more time,” she said. “I loved interacting with those people. After all, I’ve been a mom and breastfed four kids.”

Johnson opted for Meals on Wheels. “Their program is larger and more expansive than I realized,” she said. “Their whole process is flawless. I mean, they really have everything down.” She went on to cite the organization’s frozen meal, pharmaceutical and pet programs plus a nutrition department that provides personal coaching.

Also, she said, the services aren’t limited to seniors. “Maybe someone fell and broke their hip,” she said. “They may only be 40, but all their family is in New York City. Well, they’re going to be non-ambulatory for a while and may need extra support.”

Adams couldn’t decide between Texas A&M’s Agrilife program and a Mansfield ISD cafeteria. The former, she said, is “an expanded food and education program. The educators do a fantastic job of reaching everyone from a kindergartner to the homeless population. It was remarkable to see the principles we learn in class being put into action.”

The school cafeteria, she said, puts into practice – sometimes in a tight time frame – all the principles she had learned in dietary management classes. Each day, she said, was “boom, boom boom,” checking inventory, preparing the meals, serving the meals, and cleaning up so as to be ready to do it all over the next day”

All three had a long-standing interest in food and nutrition which led them to TCC’s program. Moyo’s curiosity led to extensive internet searches and finally to TCC’s website. “I didn’t know there was a dietetics program,” she said, “so when I found it, I thought it would be a way to learn the truth about food. Then I realized, ‘Oh, there is a career in this.’”

Johnson’s interest came from some of her own health issues. Her doctor put her on a regimen, not only of medicines, but also nutrients. “Then I started looking at different dietary programs and saw there was a way to turn what I had learned from research into a way to help other people,” she said.

Adams said she’s always been “a nutrition kid” and looked to the TCC program as a good pathway to her goal of setting up a private nutritional coaching practice. “It’s a huge market,” she said. “It’s remarkable how many people are looking for coaching. The idea is to take how a family eats and to help whoever the person is who does the cooking or meal planning – and I hope that’s everyone – and teach them how to eat healthily and how eating healthy isn’t just salad every day, the rabbit food most people think of, but that it can be fun.”

While Johnson and Moyo are looking down the road at perhaps using a TCC degree as a springboard to bachelor’s and master’s degrees, Adams is ruling that out, “for now.” She wants to use her background in business leadership, she said, “so I want to take all of those principles I’m learning here and develop my own business.”

While the Dietetic Technician students learn from their instructors and from spending time in the field, they also learn from one another. The department established a mentorship program this fall where incoming students are paired with those who have more experience and are able to answer questions and give advice.

And the informal education doesn’t stop there. “People constantly reach out to other people within the program for guidance,” Adams said. “So, even though it may not be a formal process, we all tend to work together mentoring each other. Everybody’s got a different perspective that may help me see things better.”

“We’ve become a community,” Johnson added. “And one thing I would want people considering the program is that you become part of a smaller community within a big college. You’re not in the sea by yourself.”

“Most of the students in our program have a strong interest in nutrition – in helping people with health challenges,” Liew-Newville said. “They believe that nutrition is important, and they want to come in and make an impact. They want to teach people how to eat better so that they can have a better life … a healthier life.”