Yes, I made it! This September marked the beginning of my dietetic practicum program. Let me explain how I got here: Five years ago, I was fresh out of high school and I thought I had my life figured out. My plan was to complete an undergraduate degree in nutrition, secure a dietetic practicum, pass the registration exam, and become a registered dietitian. Simple, right?
I spent the first two years of my degree striving for A’s and somehow getting through core courses (remember organic chemistry?). It was not until I reached my third year that I realized my focus had been too narrow. I constantly overheard fourth year students talking about their practicum program applications and the hard truth began to sink in: Not all applicants were chosen. My intention, initially, was to apply the following year, but I decided against it. I wasn’t ready. Instead, I asked myself a question, “How can I set myself apart from the other practicum applicants?”
I started pursuing opportunities by meeting with professors, connecting with alumni, and conversing with health professionals. During my search for opportunities, I came across the co-operative education information session at Acadia University and decided to attend. I consider this the best decision I made during my undergraduate degree.
I enrolled myself in the co-op program and spent the following year completing four consecutive work terms. This detour in my degree allowed me to gain a year of relevant work experience, build a professional network, and be better equipped to secure a dietetic practicum program.
My work terms ranged from farming on the rooftop of a Toronto-based high school, to conducting research and applying findings to the Canadian Nutrient File. Unlike dietetic practicum programs, there are no specific competencies to be met, but each co-op position was required to be full-time and discipline-related for a minimum of 13 weeks.
Securing these placements was my responsibility and unfortunately, similar to the real world, opportunities are not handed to you that easily. I was expected to contact employers and convince them to take me on as a co-op student. At first I was nervous, grappling with my own inexperience and making countless attempts to market myself, but with time and perseverance, I was beginning to master the art of personal branding.
I also took it a step further by creating a Twitter and LinkedIn account to establish a professional presence online. By doing so, I was able to secure employment with the following organizations: FoodShare Toronto, Access Alliance Multicultural Health & Community Services, the Health Products and Food Branch at Health Canada, and the Canadian Diabetes Association. Knowing how to market myself was a huge asset when composing personal letters and preparing for practicum interviews.
Upon the completion of each work term, I put together a reflection discussing learnings, highlighting strengths, and identifying areas for improvement. I was starting to recognize my own work needs and preferences, prompting me to diversify each subsequent placement in the hopes to learn more about myself.
By doing this, not only did I get a taste for future career options, but I was able to establish meaningful relationships with supervisors and colleagues. One of my most memorable moments was during my last week at the Canadian Diabetes Association when I got on the same elevator as the CEO of the organization. Instead of shying away from the opportunity, I literally used my “elevator speech” and introduced myself. By the time we got to the lobby, I was told to keep in touch once I graduated and soon after we connected on LinkedIn.
I was beginning to develop a strong professional network, which was especially advantageous when choosing references for practicum applications. Being able to create a network is not limited to a co-op placement, they can also be achieved through other avenues such as volunteering and summer jobs. However, co-op work placements made it possible to build solid connections with those who were familiar with my abilities and potential specific to the field of nutrition and dietetics.
Although enrolling in a co-op program extended the length of my degree, the benefits reaped from the hands-on program have been invaluable. It has provided me with unique learning opportunities: Ones that I would not have received through academia alone.
If you find yourself in a position of uncertainty, whether it’s about practicum program applications, your interests within the profession, or even your own skill set, I would strongly encourage you to enroll in the co-op program at your school. Don’t pass up on a unique learning opportunity that could be the recipe to your success!
Editor’s note: Thank you for sharing your insights with us, Rekha! I did a co-op education program in a different field before I started pursuing dietetics, but had a similar experience to Rekha. I learned a lot about myself and working in the “real world.” The skills I learned were transferable and certainly helped me during my interview for the UBC dietetics program. I would echo Rekha’s recommendation to give it a shot if you are looking for a unique way to stand out amongst practicum program applicants.
Have you tried co-op education? What was your experience? Do you have questions for Rekha about co-op? Please share below!