Schooling and Career

    Grad School Reflections Fall 2021

    Going into this semester, I thought it would be the easiest yet. It turns out, every semester of grad school is challenging in its own ways. I thought this semester would be easier because I was a part-time student, but then I overcommitted myself to other things like work. So, my challenges were somewhat my own fault, but I made it, I live to tell the tale of my first semester on campus at UNC Chapel Hill. At this point I’ve completed 3 of my 4 semesters in grad school and over half of my dietetic internship. I can’t believe that this time next year I will be licensed and credentialed as Alexa Prass MPH, RDN, LDN (gotta take all the letters my money will pay for [ugh student loans]). 

    Classes

    Like I mentioned earlier I was technically a part-time student this semester. The way the program is structured this semester only requires 6 credit hours. I ended up taking 8 as I was offered a position in an extra training program related to developmental disabilities. I think it is a bit funny too, when deciding to only go part-time I talked to my academic advisor and he told me that going to full-time wasn’t really necessary and that most times students find other ways and still end up overcommitted. It’s like he could tell the future or something. I will say, it was a bit frustrating that I was on the line of being full-time because I was unable to receive some funding I was awarded due to my part-time status. So if you ever are in the position to go part-time it can make sense, but make sure all your funding is squared away before making that decision.

    Community Nutrition

    Of the classes I took, this was my favorite. It was different than I expected, but different in a good way. I thought we’d talk about community programs that already exist such as WIC and SNAP, and we did a bit, but it wasn’t the focus of the class. All of these classes in the second year are extensions of classes we took during the first year with an emphasis on nutrition related problems. This class reviewed some of the topics we studied in both first and second semester of the first year. So in this class we reviewed defining a public health problem and proposing an evidence based intervention. Reviewing the material we learned last year and focusing it in on nutrition problems was really exciting to many of us as we did not get to focus on much nutrition last year in the core classes.

    This class was taught in a hybrid mode, which was a learning experience for all. When possible, I did go to class in person, but there were definitely days I did not have the energy to travel to campus and joined on zoom instead. The professor for this class was great at utilizing many different teaching techniques to engage all students. Often we had a bit of lecture, some small group discussion time, and then a large group discussion. Knowing that everyone has their own style of learning I appreciate the variety of techniques and I enjoyed the discussions that occurred during this class. We were also regularly given time to work in our groups for our project which was helpful as our group often had difficulty finding time to meet outside of class. Although this was my favorite class, and this work has so much value, I do not believe community based nutrition is where my passions lie and that is ok.

    Food Policy

    This class I internally struggled with a lot. Similar to the community nutrition, this class related to the policy class we took last spring with an emphasis on nutrition related policy. Policy is so important, and policy change can impact a lot of people, both positively and negatively, but goodness it is not something I am excited about.

    A bit more about this internal struggle. So many of the nutrition related policies felt like they take so much autonomy away from people, specifically marginalized people. That just does not feel right to me. And yes there may be positive health benefits, but the cost associated never seemed to be discussed. For example, we talked about proposals for SNAP to be more like WIC and having a specified package of food offered to recipients. And having already completed my WIC rotation I recalled that many people would rather use SNAP because they have some choice over what foods they buy. And like seriously, people should get a choice of what they eat. So I guess to me, a lot of the nutrition policy work seemed too paternalistic and controlling. I do think systemic change needs to happen, but I think if big things like poverty, inequity, and others are fixed then some of the nutrition and health related problems would see more benefit that not allowing people to buy a bag of chips with their SNAP dollars.

    Another policy we talked in depth about was the Food Labeling Modernization Act (FLMA). And as a Celiac this could be a really great and important policy. This policy would require front of package allergy labeling and this would be so helpful to so many people. On the other hand, it has other front of package labeling that seems shameful and more harmful than good in my opinion. And as with so many things, marginalized people would be most affected.

    Obviously, I have a lot of opinions on this class. Another opinion is that the structure of this class was not my favorite. There was too much asynchronous content in my opinion. On top of that the lecture was only once a week and therefore two and a half hours long. The time was often split between different activities including PollEverywhere, small and large group discussion, and on occasion guest speakers, so that helped, but it was still a long class. I’m still grateful to be able to learn about this material and I do believe that I now have ways to interact and make an impact on policy without working in a policy related job.

    Developmental Disabilities Across the Lifespan

    This class is not one that is required for my degree, but one that I took as part of an extra traineeship I am participating in called LEND. LEND stands for Leadership and Education in Neurodevelopmental Disorders. The opportunity to be a part of LEND was very exciting and when opportunities present themselves I try to take them and learn from them. I have some experience working with people with disabilities, and although I am a part of this program, I don’t know that it is a population I will seek out working with for my whole career. Despite that I am very grateful for the opportunity to be in this program. This program consists of people from many healthcare disciplines as well as self- and family-advocates. So not only do we learn about different neurodevelopmental disorders, but we interact with people who live with some of these disorders and get to learn about their lived experiences.

    This class specifically meets once a week, but there are some other requirements as well for the LEND program. I will likely do a post about it at some point. And me writing that makes it so I stay accountable. The class itself uses a problem based learning method. We are given a case with some resources and guided questions. We have a group on our learning platform Sakai where we discuss the guided questions. After we’ve had a chance to familiarize ourselves with the case we come to class and have larger group discussion. This way of learning is well researched and has been a fun way to learn. I especially like that our groups are specifically made to be interdisciplinary. I am the only nutrition student in the program, which is unfortunate for many reasons, but it means I get to learn about other healthcare workers jobs and what they do. With this experience and my other experiences working with disabled people I hope I can become a better advocate for the community as a whole as well as disabled patients I may work with in the future.

    Group Work

    Group work has been a big part of this program. And that is understandable. Most public health work isn’t done individually, but instead in groups. Both of my nutrition classes had group assignments. I struggled in these projects a bit and working with these groups. One thing I’ve been trying to work on since I’ve been in this program has been boundaries. Specifically taking time for myself away from schoolwork. I personally was not as clear about some of these boundaries with my group from the beginning and it caused me some frustration. For example, I try my best to be done with school work by 8 and let myself watch some TV, or read or something that is not school related. I did not communicate this with the group and oftentimes got messages to my phone about the group project late at night. Most of the time I left it until the next day, but then felt some guilt about not being a responsive group member. I know that even though I wasn’t as responsive during those times that I did my fair share of work in the projects, so it was alright, but still a learning experience for myself.

    Another thing I hope to make more clear in future group assignments or projects is respect for others time. During the semester we were all busy with all of our commitments. Each of my groups had set standing weekly meeting times and in each of these groups people scheduled other obligations during these times. That felt very disrespectful and I did not appreciate it. In the future, I hope to be more open about the group expectations are when it comes to meeting and what would be a reason not to meet during an already planned standing meeting.

    It’s a bit funny because last year I ragged on the team charters that we were required to complete in the core classes. About halfway through this semester I wished we had team charters, or agreements with each other to come back to. I think talking about boundaries, expectations, and how to manage conflict could have been helpful in these projects. In the end, we finished all the assignments and I believe I learned just as much about the assignment topics as I did about team dynamics. And it definitely helped that group topics were nutrition related and super interesting to me.

    MPH Comprehensive Exam

    Comprehensive exams seem to have become a common part of MPH programs recently. This exam was administered the first weekend back to school in the fall semester for my cohort. I believe they vary when they offer the exam for different degree programs or for students completing the online program. Much of this depends on when you finish the public health core courses. Specific courses are required to have been completed before you are eligible to take the exam.

    I was very nervous for this exam for many reasons, firstly because it was an oral exam. I had never really taken an oral exam, other than maybe a few language exams and this worried me. I don’t always feel like I’m as articulate as I would like to be and this made me nervous for this exam. It was also administered completely online and I’ve had internet problems in the past at my apartment and that worried me as well. Thankfully, at the time I was able to reserve a room in the library and complete my exam privately in the library. I also just was a bit worried because it was at the beginning of the year and I had not done anything with the material since the spring. Thankfully that was not a big issue. After having taken the exam I can tell you it is not as bad as it seems.

    Like I mentioned before, the exam is an oral exam. There are two public health problems, one domestic and one global, that are given ahead of time along with a set of questions. You are expected to research the topics and prepare your answers for the questions given. During the exam you will be told which of the topics you are going to be tested on. The examiners then will ask you two of the questions from the questions that were provided. They also ask one follow up to each of the questions. All in all you will answer four questions regarding the public health problem. There is a time limit to how long you can speak on each question, but at least for me it felt like plenty of time. You are also given the chance to collect your thoughts before answering if that helps you. Things that helped me succeed in the exam include working with fellow cohort members to research the topics and having keywords and big thoughts written on my notecard. A notecard is allowed to have some notes if that is something that is helpful to you. Although this seems like a big barrier to graduation from this program, know that it is not as serious as it seems. I personally don’t know anyone that did not pass and there is a system in place for students that may need to retake the exam.

    UNC Chapel Hill Campus

    Rosenau Hall, Gillings School of Global Public Health

    This was my first semester taking classes on campus. And I’ll be honest, I’ve seen and explored very little of campus. Before I applied to the program I did take a tour through the graduate school, so I did see many of the main attractions. Most of my time has been spent in Gillings. The Gillings building is beautiful, and honestly part of the reason I wanted to go to this program. P.S. I do not recommend picking a program just because of their building, there are many other things to consider when deciding which program will be best for you. I have also spent some time in the health sciences library and have been to the student union a number of times because they offer free COVID testing to students there. Overall, the campus itself is very beautiful. I definitely wish I was on campus more than I was this past semester.

    I often only went to campus for class and did not spend much time on campus otherwise. This was for various reasons. Firstly, I worked a lot when I was not in class and therefore I could not be on campus. Although I could’ve made lunches and brought them onto campus with me, I found it easier to make meals at home and that was a bit more comfortable with COVID. Lastly, masks were required and still are for indoor spaces. I agree with this mandate and appreciate that precautions are being taken, but it did deter me from spending copious amounts of extra time on campus when I could be working at home without a mask. Hopefully, one day, mask mandates won’t be the norm and studying or doing homework on campus will be more enjoyable.

    Pre-pandemic drinking from the Old Well

    Extracurriculars

    Gillings Student Government Association (SGA)

    I am one of the events coordinators for Gillings SGA. Last year I was the only events coordinator and this year I added two more events coordinators to my team. This has been so nice because we are able to work together and put on more events for students. Last year I attributed the lack of attendance for many events to zoom fatigue as we were 100% virtual. This year we struggled again to get participation. My team and I have been working on finding events that excite students and will entice them to attend. One thing we’ve learned though is that students are busy, and there are some students who will just never attend the events we put on. That is bummer for sure, but just the reality of the situation.

    This fall semester we put on a few events. The one I am most proud of was a day of service. We partnered with many community organizations within Chapel Hill and Carrboro and sent students to volunteer with those organizations. We had great feedback from both the students and the community organizations. It seemed to be a great way for students to meet others and learn about others within the school. During my experience here I’ve felt like I haven’t met many people outside of my cohort and I think events like this help to encourage interaction with people in other disciplines. I truly hope that this event will continue in the future and grow to include even more community organizations.

    The other event we successfully held was a pumpkin carving event. It was so nice to be able to do this event in person. Last year we did this event online, which was fun, but it is nice to be in the same place as other people. Our organization was able to obtain funding and we offered pumpkins and carving materials to students. A handful of students showed up and carved pumpkins and ate candy with us. It was so fun, other than me carrying like 15 pumpkins into the building from my car, which was not parked close. I was definitely very sore the day after the event, but it was worth it.

    Ninth Street Dance

    Growing up I danced. I danced in a studio from the age of three all the way through high school graduation. It was my sport and I loved it. When I went to college, I was struggling with my relationship with dance and I let it go for awhile. In the past few years I really had wanted to get back into it. It was such a big part of my life growing up and I missed it. I found Ninth Street after I decided I would be moving to Chapel Hill. It is in Durham and a little bit of a drive from my place, but the online reviews made me believe it would be worth it. Unfortunately, last year they were all online. Of course, I understood why, but living in the top floor apartment made me feel like I couldn’t take a dance class in my place. This year, they started offering classes in person again and I was ecstatic. When I saw that announcement I was so happy. I found a class that fit into my schedule and signed myself up. Dancing again, with others, has helped me so much. It is my favorite way to move my body and I am sad I took so much time off, but am glad I found my way back to dance. It’s no secret that I’m not a fan of this area, and plan to move once I’m finished with this program and Ninth Street will be what I miss most. The way they talk about movement, and dance is so in line with my values and how I want to move my body it has been a great experience.

    Dance class selfies

    Social Life

    Grad school social life has still been pretty challenging for me. I often worked on weekends and this impacted me seeing friends and doing more socially. Despite that, I do think it was better this semester being on campus than when we were remote learning. Even though I did not get to hang out with friends all the time I rode the bus with some friends who live in my apartment complex, and often some of us would get to class a few minutes early and chat. Those little things that were missing in remote learning were really nice and beneficial.

    I did get to take a few trips throughout the semester that helped break up the monotony of school. Within the first few weeks my friend and I went to the beach in Wilmington. This is one of our favorite things to do when we have a full day off. It is a bit of a drive, but not too far not to go. We took some seltzers, a cooler, and our paddle boards and hung out on the beach. Writing about this in the cold makes me ready for beach weather.

    Spontaneous beach days

    I also went to D.C. to watch my best friend graduate in October. This was the first time I had been to D.C. since probably the 8th grade. It was also the first time I had seen my best friend in over a year. One thing I don’t want to ever do again is go that long without seeing my best friend. It is truly the worst. So, I finally got to see her and visit with her and her family. We all hung out in D.C. and I didn’t do ay schoolwork and that was really nice. I do wish I had been able to stay longer, and gotten to explore D.C. more with them. I’m sure I will be back at some point.

    Gluten free finds D.C.

    Later in October, I went to Texas for a wedding. Although the main reason I bought the tickets in the first place was to go to the wedding, I was able to see many of my favorite people. If you did not know, I lived in Austin for a year and a half with family, and so I went and stayed with them for the wedding, which was in Fredericksburg. My best friend, mentioned earlier, currently lives in San Antonio. She was awesome and agreed to go with me to the wedding. We had a great time hanging out, checking out a winery in Fredericksburg, going to the wedding, and then going back to San Antonio to visit with her new friends. I hadn’t had that much fun in a long time and it was something I truly needed.

    Fredericksburg, TX winery

    Schedule

    Between school, and work I had very few days off in the fall semester and this is something I do not recommend at all. This definitely helped me become as burnt out as I was at the end of this semester. The only days I had off ended up being days I requested off from work and those days I had something planned. I’m not one to ask off of work unless there is a reason. As far as classes I had class three days a week, which I appreciated. Because of changes in the bus schedules sometimes I wished both of the classes were on the same day. My apartment is close to a common bus line, and it hasn’t seen as major of changes as some of the bus routes. Despite that, it still doesn’t come as often as I thought it would, or expected based others experience with the bus system. The three day a week schedule meant I spent the other five usually at my job. When scheduling yourself, do give yourself at least one day off.

    Technology

    This section which I included on my first two posts was much more relevant when it came to online learning. For in person learning I most often just took my computer to class. I did not buy myself anything new for this semester other than a laptop bag because my old backpack was totally falling apart. If you want to learn more about the technology I used for remote learning check that out on my fall and spring posts.

    Conclusion

    This fall semester was challenging for sure. Going back to mostly in-person learning was appreciated, but came with its own struggles including using the public bus and adding commute time back into the schedule. Though being in person had some challenges I appreciated regularly seeing my classmates and getting to interact with others more. This semester I completed even more of my requirements towards graduation and gaining my RD credential. Despite the struggles I do think this was the happiest I was with schoolwork. Now I just have to tackle one more semester and 10 weeks of my clinical internship.