Think back to the time you were a prospective dietetics student. I can bet that one memory we all have in common is that of the stress that came with trying to get into a very competitive integrated dietetics or internship program.
How I got my start supporting dietetic students
Determined to change this experience for the next generation of dietetics students, once I got into the UBC integrated program, I went all out to share my experience and wisdom at as many events and student panels that I could. Upon assessing the needs of my fellow colleagues, I realized that they always wanted more personal guidance. As a result, I decided to develop workshops to help prospective students with their application preparation and encourage peer-review (while making sure we announced a disclaimer that this won’t guarantee their entry into the program). This process helped many prospective students to feel more prepared, supported and focused…many of whom are full practicing dietitians today!
I also wanted to take full advantage of living on campus by looking for opportunities to further develop my skills in the food and nutrition field. I submitted a cooking and nutrition camp curriculum proposal to UBC Camps. I outlined the lesson plans, in line with the provincial school curriculum, for kids 9-12 years of age. It got accepted and I ran it for 3 years.. The first two years were rough because of how fast the camps grew, and I didn’t have the right support by other staff and volunteers. To solve this problem I decided that it was time to bring in nutrition and dietetics students instead of arbitrary camp staff. This changed my world!
What happened next
Fast forward to post-graduation, I turned my 3 year cooking camp summer project into a business, under the name nutriFoodie. The campers had a much richer experience working with nutrition students who loved to share their passion for food, nutrition and education. Year after year, the camps grew and so did my volunteer team, from 3 nutrition students to 18 nutrition students, in 4 years.
I started realizing how much the cooking camps lent themselves as a teaching ground for student volunteers to develop key transferable skills for the dietetics profession. The camps have become a win-win situation all around: for the kids attending, the nutrition students volunteering, the returning students who become paid teachers, and for me as a mentor.
I like to think that we structure the camps similar to an internship. Our student volunteers are supported by the camp instructors, who after their training become nutri-Foodie ambassadors. Ambassadors stay involved with the camps by doing promotions and social media activities. On a professional level, our student volunteers gain skills in planning, coordination, leadership, communication, conflict resolution, critical thinking, teamwork, nutrition and food education. On a personal level, they benefit from having a mentorship relationship with myself and their instructors, and forming strong relationships with like-minded colleagues.
The core skills that student volunteers gain after their camp experience
Planning & Coordination: Instructors work very closely with me in planning the camp curriculum for 6-9 months. They also learn the whats and hows of coordinating a program, as well as how to leverage the volunteers’ special & diverse skills, and how to work with kids of different ages and skill levels. Volunteers are asked to prepare activities and games they will lead in the camps and will coordinate cooking, crafts, games and icebreakers under the direction of their instructor.
Critical Thinking & Conflict Resolution: Instructors have the biggest learning curve as new leaders, especially when it comes to resolving conflicts in camps, and delegating tasks efficiently, effectively and to the right personnel all of which require critical thinking skills. Common issues like recipes going wrong, missing a key item needed for an activity, and dealing with conflict between campers are only a few examples of challenges instructors may face. Volunteers learn to take control of a group of 2-4 kids, learn how to build rapport with them, while also being able to assign tasks depending on the kids’ interest, skill-level and personality.
Teamwork & Community: Working as a team all together has been a really big part of our success as a whole. Building a strong sense of unity and community with the nutriFoodie values and mission at heart have been so instrumental to keep the leadership within the teams strongly rooted in the long-term benefits for the kids, volunteers and community as a whole.
Food & Nutrition Education: Food is so intimate for everyone! Knowing how to share information and educate children and young teens ends up being a learning experience for the volunteers and leaders alike. At this stage of their education, most volunteers and instructors have not yet been exposed to the impact of certain words and concepts on a child’s perception of food. When we discuss these critical components during our training, it’s always an “Aha!” moment for our volunteers to realize the role food plays in our daily lives. Aside from that, I love seeing our volunteers try and enjoy new multicultural recipes.
Feedback & Debrief: I am always impressed watching the growth and development of our team. Just like an internship, we have daily debriefs, where the volunteers debrief with the instructors, and then instructors debrief with me. Through this process we remain on the same page and share the same feedback. Feedback can be difficult to share but one important piece to remember: it’s a two way street... how to give feedback, and how to receive feedback. Being open to both is the only way we have all grown as leaders, and the camps have grown in the local community.
One of my volunteers, Mei, had this to say, “Volunteering for the camp gave me the chance to improve my teaching and communication skills, both of which are equally important because the students come from varying backgrounds, have different skill sets and perceptions towards food and nutrition.” And from Kim, “Learning how to be assertive with campers helped me develop confidence and grew my leadership skills. Making connections and having fun with the campers made the experience so much more rewarding, knowing that I made a positive impact. Connecting with so many like-minded people and hearing about their experiences, and receiving advice impacted me by developing friendships and relationships.”
The journey doesn’t end with the summer camps!
We continue on during the school year, training and mentoring students on how to communicate evidence-based nutrition and food information that’s relatable to families with young children. Ensuring we focus on a food-first approach and highlight body-positive language, our volunteers have plenty of room to grow and develop their skills. This all would not be possible without my strong support network of senior volunteers and contractors who have been working with me for years - their contribution to the team in coaching and developing training modules to further the nutriFoodie voice and values is key to the success of the volunteers’ skill development.
Needless to say, it all comes around in full circle. As long as we continue to keep thinking of the student volunteers’ best learning opportunities and the students’ thinking of honoring the nutriFoodie community, it will always be an ongoing positive learning experience.
Now tell me about you, have you worked with student volunteers? What are some successes and challenges you’ve had? Share your stories and comment below.
Disclaimer: The opinions of the bloggers are their own. Dietitians of Canada encourages submissions and provides publishing support but does not guarantee the accuracy of the information provided. Please contact the writer directly for concerns or questions about the content.