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Mason Nutrition Students Prepare for Future Careers Through an Internship Opportunity with a Nutrition Advocacy Nonprofit.
Students pursuing a degree in the Department of Nutrition and Food Studies (NFS) are trained to address public health issues involving nutrition and food access in various settings, from hospitals and long-term care facilities to school districts and governmental agencies.
To ensure students gain valuable experience in these diverse settings, most students complete a practicum, which is an important and required component of NFS degree programs. The practicum provides experiential learning opportunities, so students can choose internships that align with their professional goals and interests and help develop the needed skills for future careers.
As a practicum advisor, Lilian de Jonge’s, associate professor in the Department of Nutrition and Food Studies, goal is to match students with internships that best align with their career interests and serve as a foundation to their future careers.
“Although internships in well-known organizations and companies show well on a CV, the majority of our students may learn more and have a more hands-on experience in smaller organizations, where they usually have a chance to touch on a wider range of activities and can work on projects that they have the sole responsibility for,” said de Jonge.
Real-world experience in food nutrition advocacy
Among these organizations is Real Food for Kids, a nonprofit located in McLean, Virginia that advocates for children’s wellness and academic success by instilling healthy food policies for school districts across the DC region.
“As a nonprofit working in nutrition insecurity, we cultivate interest in the non-clinical side of advocacy and education,” said Mary Porter, director of programs for Real Food for Kids. “Nonprofit work, especially with an organization as small as ours–we are a team of two people–means our interns have an opportunity to not only work on specific projects but manage administrative and operational duties as well.”
Internships at organizations such as Real Foods for Kids give Mason students opportunities to improve the nutritional quality of school lunches by building strong relationships with members in the field as well as being creative and adaptive when responding to new policy updates or research discoveries relating to nutrition.
In the past, Mason students have been integral to advancing the organization’s core nutrition programs, such as Fresh Food Explorers, which focuses on enhancing food literacy and nutrition education for preschoolers; Food Day, an elementary-level nutrition education program; and Culinary Challenge, a USDA school food culinary competition for middle and high schools.
Porter explained that Mason students’ eagerness to learn is what sets them apart from other schools that have interned with the organization. For Alyssa Wilson, who earned her Master of Science in Nutrition at Mason, her enthusiasm for learning new skills is one of the aspects that made the internship an enjoyable and memorable experience.
'An opportunity to develop my skills' - A Student Perspective
“Working on the Fresh Foods Explorers program during my internship at Real Food for Kids provided an opportunity to not only develop my skills in writing nutrition education programs specific to the needs of a particular community but also helped me to better develop important community engagement skills,” said Wilson. “Understanding the needs of the community and working directly with the preschoolers at a predominantly low-income school allowed me to create quality programming based on current behaviors. I worked directly with Arlington Healthy Communities Action Team to help educate the whole community about the benefits of eating fresh foods.”
“In fact, this work with children from low-income families, who are at higher risk of obesity and food insecurity, led to my current work with the Mason: Health Starts Here cohort study. We are comparing information from student cohorts across three time periods: those who started at Mason prior to the pandemic, those entering college in the midst of the pandemic, and those starting college shortly thereafter. The goal is to understand what impact it may have had on their health and behaviors during their college years,” said Wilson.
'The internship that suits you the best is the foundation of your whole career.'
According to de Jonge, students who are considering a degree in Nutrition and Food Studies should “take their time and explore all possibilities” before choosing their internship. “Do not see it as just a course to cross off the list,” de Jonge said. “The internship that suits you the best is the foundation of your whole career. You don’t want to rush that.”
For students who are interested in pursuing an internship in nutrition and not seeking a clinical experience, Porter encourages Mason students to consider Real Food for Kids.
“We can offer a unique nonprofit experience that will grow their professional skills in a different way,” Porter said. “We have just embarked on a new program to design a Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) pilot that offers incentives for fruit and vegetable purchases. The work requires a high level of community engagement, particularly in communities of color. We are hoping to engage interns in the formative work getting underway in the fall and through next year.”