I am currently in the coordinated MPH RD program at the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill. So that is a lot of letters that may not mean a lot to you. The program is a Master’s of Public Health (MPH) with Registered Dietitian (RD) training. And when I say coordinated it means that the internship required for the RD exam is built into the program. Many programs are just the classwork and to complete the internship a student would need to apply to the internship program. And it is really special that I was able to get into a coordinated program because they are few and far between.
I started this program in August 2020 knowing that at least one semester, if not more would be online. For me it made sense to start despite not loving online classes as I had already taken 2 years off of full-time school (learn more about my gap years here). I was ready to move forward towards obtaining my RD credential and did not want to defer. Had I not already taken time off, I think I would have waited to attend class in person.
In this post I reflect on my experience with doing graduate school online. Obviously I can only speak for myself and my experience, so take what you will and disregard the rest. I also outline the classes I took to help educate others as to why dietitians are considered the nutrition experts. I hope to do a review similar to this after each semester and internship rotation.
For the first year of the program at UNC a majority of the classes are the public health classes with a few concentration classes mixed in. I took a total of 5 classes for a total 15 credit hours. Most of my classmates took 12, and not saying that to brag, but to highlight a mistake of my own. I was not fully informed that I should not take an elective this last semester and by the time I heard the advice had already paid for the books. If you are in school at all just be actively asking questions of your advisors and seeking advice because they want to see you succeed. Now onto the classes I took and a brief overview of the course content.
In this class, as you can imagine by the name, we worked with and learned about data. We learned about different types of data and what kind of analytical tests can be done with each category of data. As the semester progressed we also learned how to perform many of the analytical tests like chi-squared test, and t-tests. Throughout the semester we used a software called STATA to assist in our tests.
This class required a lot of critical thinking and a lot of trial and error when it came to STATA. I think this class was really valuable and will help me to understand data presented in literature that I read. So although I do not plan to become a statistician after taking this class, I am glad we took it.
Methods and Measures
This class is best described as an epidemiology course. I think they just wanted fancy names for the courses. In this course we talked about different methods of collecting data. Study design was one of the biggest topics that was focused on. As far as study design we learned what studies are appropriate in specific situations, how studies are conducted and more. We also learned a lot of new public health vocabulary such as prevalence and incidence. Since our class was occurring during the pandemic we discussed how research is talked about in the general population as well. Using all of the knowledge we learned throughout the semester we critically analyzed research articles as some of our final assessments. This class had both individual work and group work.
One fun fact about me is that for a hot second in undergrad I thought I wanted to study epidemiology. This was during what I’ll call as my identity crisis that occurred after deciding veterinary medicine was not for me. Epidemiology, which I found out during my undergrad Epi class, is not my favorite thing. Despite that this class has so much value. After taking this class I can critically analyze the scientific literature. I can point out study design and why that study design made sense or not for a specific study question. I also know because of this class that I can remotely work on a team and have great outcomes.
Understanding Public Health Issues
I am going to be totally honest here, I did not go to this class often (sorry future self). In this class we learned about the social determinants of health, barriers to healthcare, and the differences between equality and equity. We also learned about different frameworks and models that can be used to identify and then fix public health problems. The core classes, the ones I’ve discussed already, all work together to help students obtain a comprehensive understanding of public health. Myself, and many of my classmates think the teachings from this class could have been integrated into the other two.
Of all my classes this semester, this was by far my least favorite. And from what I’ve heard from others, it was not well liked. They formatted it with a lecture and recitation. The main grade for the class was a group project, which in my opinion did not go well. My group project was not related to nutrition and therefore as the semester went on I had less and less desire to work on it. It felt like a waste of time as projects such as these are supposed to go on your CV, and nobody in nutrition will care about my group project on Toxoplasmosis. This group also did not work as well together as others and that made it difficult as well. And lastly it was difficult for me because the class was very writing focused. During undergrad I wrote very few papers because my classes gave tests to measure students learning, so that was difficult for me as well. If you are reading this because you are considering this program I am sure you will have to take this class. Just remember that GPA isn’t a thing here and focusing on concentration classes to get the most out of them is totally acceptable.
This class has a lot of great content. The way it was set up was there were 3 big assignments and then some smaller assignments throughout the semester. This class is still offered through Gillings so we discussed things such as health literacy, equity, upstream vs. downstream interventions and more. So throughout the class most of our conversations and ideas encompassed public health ideas. We also learned about behavior and behavior change through motivational interviewing along with how to teach groups and form lesson plans. One of the big assignments was a mock interview using motivational interviewing, which was so stressful, but after the fact I have a lot more confidence in my abilities.
This was by far my favorite class for many reasons. The most important is that nutrition counseling is what I see myself doing in the future. I want to work one-on-one with people to help them improve their digestive issues and lower their anxieties around food. So it was fun to learn the techniques I will use in my future as a clinician in this class. The class was also made up of mostly my cohort which was fun to see them all, and as best you can via zoom, get to know them all a bit better. Although there was a lot of important content the class was planned out well in my opinion. There was plenty of time to work on the bigger projects and the other assignments were relatively quick.
Nutrition Across the Lifecycle
This class walked through the lifecycle from preconception to geriatrics and detailed the similarities and differences in nutritional needs. The class structure was different than I expected for this class. I imagined it would be test based, but it was not. There were chapter assessments, but a bulk of the grades were based on group presentations. The structure was also changed after the mid-semester evaluation. Our professor at the beginning had us doing many case studies, which was helpful, but for many this was one of our first nutrition classes. After the evaluations the professor started lecturing more and doing less of the case studies. For the group projects we were assigned groups and different health conditions that may require a change in nutrition requirements and we presented to the class. This class overall was like no other class I’ve ever taken.
Despite the structure being different than I was used to, I did enjoy this class. I think it is important for us as future clinicians to have general knowledge before we get into specializing. A lot of the things we did learn I may not use after taking the dietetics exam in a few years, but I know I will have the resources to always find the answers. I personally liked the case studies because we did just that. We worked collaboratively to understand the case and give recommendations, but we had resources like the internet and our group members. Those exercises I think were very helpful.
Spanish I for Healthcare Professionals
North Carolina has a relatively large Spanish speaking population, and professors at the university saw a need for more fluent healthcare professionals. They designed a 3 class series of Spanish for Healthcare Professionals. I took the first class, which was advertised as for anyone, even if you had not studied Spanish before. In this class we learned vocabulary that may be used in healthcare, and sentence structures such as commands. A majority of the class was taught in Spanish and breakout rooms were used to practice with classmates. This class had written tests with listening portions, as well as written homework assignments. The structure of the class was flipped, so much of the learning was put onto the student and then in class the goal was to practice the new skills learned.
This was the elective I took this semester. After living in Austin for a year in a half and acknowledging how many times I had opportunities to learn Spanish and never did I wanted to remedy that. Unfortunately even if I finish all 3 courses offered I do not think I will be proficient enough to effectively help Spanish speaking clients in my work. So I am currently not enrolled in the next level course, partly because next semester already has 15 credit hours. I have not decided yet if I will continue on with these courses next year. I do personally use the Duolingo app and practice Spanish daily. I also personally did not do well with the flipped learning and staying accountable. Most other language classes I’ve taken were at least 4 days a week, which is necessary to learn a new language and become proficient. This was the first time I’ve worked remotely and I did not practice the class content daily like I should have. If you consider taking the class I suggest scheduling a time window every day to practice what you’ve learned.
During this first semester there was a decent amount of group work. This was different for me compared to my undergraduate classes. There was graded group work in 3 of my 5 classes. And one of the other classes used breakout rooms and groups for in class activities. Group work is important because our peers all have different backgrounds and different knowledge. And supposedly if you know something well enough to teach it to your peers, you really know it. Also no matter what job you get after school you probably will be on a team or collaborating with colleagues in some way. Learning to work with people in a professional manner is important.
With all that being said, group work in school is still different than group work in a job. In a job, if someone does not pull their weight they just get fired because someone else will do the work. That is not the case in group work in school. I definitely had groups I liked and worked well with, and specifically one group I did not like working with. One thing I think we did poorly in the group I did not work well with is set our expectations for the class and class project. In grad school it is more about really learning the material and critical thinking skills, and grades are not as important as we’ve been constantly told they are. I think my group members in this group each had different expectations about how work would be done, and when it would be done and we did not discussed those enough. On top of that I think this group overstepped boundaries I wanted to set, and I will talk about that more in a bit. But we made it through, and I know that group work in a class only lasts as long as the class and I can move on and do better in the future.
Boundaries are so important and something I’ve been working to set as I get into my mid-twenties. Going in I knew this first year would be remote. For me I imagined that going one of two ways. The first was I’d work all the time and burn myself out because the pandemic is still in full force and there isn’t much else to do. The other way I saw it was me doing the bare minimum and then just wasting time on Netflix or the internet. So I knew I needed to set work/school boundaries so that I did not get burnt out.
For me this looked like not working super long days, taking breaks to go walk during the day or do some yoga, and working on assignments early so I was not working on them til the last minute. I think for myself I did pretty well. What I did not do very well was set boundaries and expectations for my group assignments. For example, my one group loved to meet late at night. I personally get up early and work best during the morning and early afternoon. By the time they wanted to meet, I was ready to be done with my day and I was not as firm with my boundaries with them as I should have been.
So at this point school is kind of my job. It is what I am doing to get me to where I want to be in a career. But that’s the thing we have to remember, school and work are important, but they should not be our whole life. There is so much more to life than work. There are friends, families, hobbies and travel that should be present in our lives, even if it looks differently than normal right now. So as I continue on, and if you are reading this I urge you to try too, I will continue setting school/work boundaries so that I always have time for the other, arguably more important, parts of life.
So honestly I was not in Chapel Hill a lot of this first semester. I had some opportunities to go visit family and friends and with everything being remote I was able to do that. Originally I had planned to get a job as soon as I got to town, but I think this was the better option for me for sure. So I moved all my stuff to Chapel Hill, but the first half of the semester I was not around much.
Since October I have been back full time and exploring what I can. Chapel Hill is a cute small southern university town. It is beautiful and at this point still has a lot of it’s own character. Although I already see this changing as developers have started building on the historic Franklin Street and elsewhere around town. At this point (December 2020), there are still many family owned restaurants and shops in town. I actually just went to buy a Christmas ornament and the shop owner said their family had owned that shop since the 50’s. Currently we are in the pandemic and there are still restrictions, as there should be, so I have not gotten the full Chapel Hill experience. But I imagine when everyone is on campus, or there is a big game day it would be so lively and fun. I don’t think I’ll stay here forever, but I’m glad I get to say I’ve lived here and experienced Chapel Hill.
Carrboro is the town right next to Chapel Hill and honestly they are pretty much one in the same. Carrboro seems to have more graduate students and families compared to Chapel Hill. The community in Carrboro also seems like it would be awesome. They support local businesses and restaurants and care about them so much that they won’t let big franchises into town. Supposedly Wendy’s is the only chain restaurant in Carrboro. I think that is just wonderful. They also have a wonderful farmer’s market weekly. On days when the market is not running the park that it occurs in hosts many community events and workout classes. My classmates and I have had social distanced meetups there, it is great. My hope is that next year I will get to see both of these communities as they were pre-COVID.
During the summer before moving to Chapel Hill I got an email for applications for student government. At the time I had not thought too much about extracurriculars during graduate school. I knew you could still participate in extracurriculars, but had given more thought to finding a job. But when I got that email I thought it could be a good way to meet other people and of course good for my resume. So I applied for one of the positions and had an interview. It was funny though because they gave that position to someone else, and offered me a different position. After asking some questions I took them up on the offer to be the events coordinator although I had very little experience planning events, especially virtual ones. I believe roles like these can challenge you and teach you knew skills and I thought taking on this role could help me do those things.
So as the events coordinator I put on three virtual events this last semester. Let me tell you, people do not want to go to virtual events and that has been quite discouraging. Currently the school is not letting us have events in person even socially distanced and masked. We put on two virtual game nights and a pumpkin carving night and despite low turnout I think the attendees had fun.
Through all of this I have learned some already, and know I will continue to learn more in this role. Some of the things I’ve learned is I need to advertise more and maybe even incentivize attendance. Within student government we have heard people want to meet others, but then don’t attend the events we put on. When I hear that I wonder if they even knew it was happening and how we can fix that. I’ve also learned that being the host on a zoom call can be overwhelming and that practice runs can be very helpful. Lastly I have learned that when planning events you need to determine what your attendees will want. Do they want to socialize, or learn something new and then use that to plan future events. Although it is at times discouraging, I am still glad I took this position and hope that I can implement some of these things I’ve learned to have more successful events in the future.
Social life in the pandemic…what is that? So I moved in the middle of the pandemic to a place I knew very few people and honestly do not suggest it. For reasons, not only the pandemic, my social life has not been great. I have been able to meet a handful of people in person, but not as many as if classes were in person, or if I could go work on schoolwork inside coffeeshops. Another thing is that friendships are different as you get older. In high school and college my friends and I saw each other usually daily, now I see my friends once every couple of weeks, which is just different. The thing I keep telling myself is to just reach out, which is pretty difficult for me. I will think about texting someone to invite them to do something for a few days before actually doing it. So although my social life has not looked like I want it to, I have the power to change that and I should do that. My cohort members all seem great and people in the area seem wonderful, so I should try to meet as many as possible, in safe ways of course, to make the best of the current situation.
Remote work is very isolating in my experience. Throughout the semester I’d spend hours on my computer in my room. I think remote work would be less isolating if coffeeshops had seating available, but that is just not the reality right now. When working remotely I think reaching out to friends and loved ones frequently can help with feelings of isolation.
This first semester keeping a schedule was hard for me. Partly because I kept going different places to work like my friend’s house in Michigan and my dad’s condo in Florida. I think when working remotely having a regular schedule set out would be better for me. I think I would have done better work if I had taken a few minutes at the beginning of the week to put in a calendar what my commitments were and block off time to do assignments. Often times I found myself feeling like I did not know what I needed to be doing. I would accomplish one task and then be like I guess I can watch Netflix even though it’s the middle of the day. This was obviously my own doing and may not be what you experience working remotely. I did not use a paper planner as everything else with school was electronic. I learned that this was a mistake for me and have invested in a Passion Planner for 2021. One thing I enjoyed and I imagine many others do as well with remote work is not having to schedule commute time. Many times in conversations with classmates it was brought up how much time we would need to spend commuting if we were to go to campus. So there are definitely positives to the whole virtual work situation.
For this next semester I plan to use my 2021 calendar and place all my appointments, class lectures, assignments and shifts at work. I also plan to block time out so that I know what needs to get done in a certain time frame, but also so I can set my work boundaries. I discussed boundaries earlier, and one of them is to not work constantly. Using time blocks and adding in blocks for myself, hobbies, and rest will help me to stick to this boundary.
Doing work remotely means relying on the internet and different programs to help connect with colleagues. Different groups of mine wanted to use different messaging platforms, which was frustrating for sure. I am an organized person and like having all my things in the same place. It also felt like I had to take so much time checking all the platforms to make sure I did not miss anything. Here I talk about some of the technology I used during this first semester and how I feel about them.
GroupMe is a group messaging app. I have used GroupMe many of times and it is a great app. During the summer one of my cohort members decided to make a GroupMe and honestly it was so overwhelming. We have a little over thirty people in our cohort and the messages would keep my phone vibrating all the time. At one point I ended up moving the app to a page on my phone I didn’t go to often and turned off the notifications. Thankfully someone suggested switching to Slack and that was a great suggestion. GroupMe is good for getting information out in a timely manner, but can be overwhelming if the group is too large. In the school or professional setting I think the group should set expectations about what should be discussed in the group so that people don’t get frustrated with it. This app can definitely be helpful for keeping in contact with groups for sure.
Two groups I am involved in used Microsoft Teams this semester. UNC uses Microsoft Outlook so uses Microsoft Teams made a lot of sense. I appreciated that when I was tagged in a chat I got an email because I checked my email more often than the Teams app.I could see this being frustrating if you had bigger teams, or more notifications. I know you can change your notification settings however you like. Microsoft Teams itself is a good platform. You can message teammates, upload files and work on documents while others are working on it too. Although we did not use this feature much, you can also do video conference calls through Teams. The only time I did this it seemed to work nicely. Overall after learning to use the features I needed for my groups I enjoyed using Teams. I like how you can have multiple teams and keep all of your work for each team within that team. If you are looking for a messaging and co-working platform this could be a good option.
Slack is another messaging platform. Within Slack you can have different channels where you have conversations about different subject matters. My cohort used Slack for school and social conversations. Before we made a Slack we had a GroupMe that was very overwhelming. I like that Slack has the different channels that you can subscribe to. We had channels for each of our classes so that we could ask questions or post reminders about homework due dates. Slack also has direct messaging features. I like Slack because I can go back and look at old messages very easily and I do not have it on my phone like GroupMe. It does have limitations in that it is only a messaging platform and you cannot work on projects or upload files like Microsoft Teams. I do think for my cohort it makes sense to use as we can have the different channels and people just put their message in the channel that makes the most sense. So at first having two different platforms was frustrating, but I see now that they worked best for what each group needed.
I talked about STATA in my description of my data analysis class. STATA is a software for statistics and data analysis. This was the most difficult program I had to learn this semester, but it was very helpful for my data analysis class. It was difficult because there are so many commands we had to learn and the commands were specific. If you had a comma in the wrong place, or missed a letter the software did not understand and therefore could not do the function you wanted it to do. Remembering all the commands, or looking them up for all the assignments was frustrating at times. Although that is the case I would not want to do some of those statistical tests by hand and the program was helpful for those tests. Another complaint would be that I spent so much time learning it and won’t use it in other classes or my career. Unfortunately that happens a lot in higher education and I can’t do anything about it.
Zoom was the video platform UNC used for virtual classes. This was the first time I used Zoom much. My other online classes I’d taken were self paced and did not have live lectures. Zoom itself is relatively intuitive. The main functions that I used regularly such as the chat box had buttons on a visible taskbar. Other functions were not as intuitive and could definitely cause some struggle. Screensharing was one of the functions that was used often in our classes, but seemed to give everyone the most problems. Sometimes the screen shared would not be the one the sharer wanted, or it took a long time for the screenshare to appear to viewers screens. Despite all of that live lectures went pretty well for me. I personally kept my camera on for most classes as it helped me stay focused knowing people could see if I wasn’t sitting at my computer.
My biggest complaints about zoom were that I had to login through UNC’s zoom website every time I needed to go to class. Instead of just being able to click the class link which I had put in a Google Calendar, I had to go login through UNC and then go through the class link. This extra step was a bit frustrating, and if I forgot it I would not be let into class. Maybe there is a way to stay logged in, but I have not figured that one out yet. Another thing that frustrated me during zoom lectures was people not being considerate in the chat box. The chat box really stressed me out at times. I wanted to keep up with what people were posting, but couldn’t do that and effectively pay attention to class. If I did not open the chat box then there was a notification with the number of chats in the taskbar and it was often distracting. If we were in person you would not have so many conversations going on as the professor was lecturing so that was difficult for me.
Work From Home Gear
This was the first time I had ever worked 100% remotely. I had taken a few classes online before, but this was when I was able to roam about freely. When I took my online classes previously I did not feel the need to buy anything other than my laptop. Since working this semester 100% virtually and taking a full course load I invested in some work from home gear to help make the best of the situation. Here I will detail what I currently have and what I want to get here soon after completing a whole semester without it.
What I Have
Blue Light Glasses
Since remote working has become so common along with many people having their faces in front of screens much of the day blue light glasses have taken off. The blue light glasses are supposed to help block some of the light given off by computer screens. I do not know too much about the consequences of the blue light other than that it can affect melatonin release and subsequently impact sleep. It is also said to cause eye strain. A fact you probably don’t need to know is that my eyes aren’t that great to begin with, so if I can do anything to strain them less I will.
So I invested in nonprescription blue light glasses and wore them constantly. I wore them pretty regularly and did not track to see if it made a difference when I wore them and when I did not. My only problem with the pair I got was that the lenses are very yellow and this can be seen on zoom calls. I don’t think anyone would have noticed or cared, but it does look a bit odd. As I continue on I imagine a lot of work I do in the future will be virtual. Because of that I do hope to get a pair of prescription blue light glasses so that I can wear them without having to constantly wear my contacts. I wore my contacts much more than I would have liked to especially since I was home most of the time. Overall in my opinion the blue light glasses are not terribly expensive and it is worth wearing them if you will be working on a computer or on a screen for many hours in a day.
If you do not have the money, or do not want to spend money on the glasses you can use the night shift option on your computer. On my Macbook there is a night shift button with the other display buttons. On my computer (yours may be different) once night shift is turned on it will stay on until the next morning. I use this if I have to take my contacts out and even in the evenings when I am watching a show on Netflix. I don’t know exactly how this works, but I think it just forces your computer to emit less blue light. All I know is the screen is not the same color as on normal mode, but the difference is not terribly noticeable after while.
Bluetooth Noise Canceling Headphones
So I have roommates and I wanted to be respectful and make sure that my classes never disturbed them. I did not know much about my apartment building before moving in, but assumed the walls were not great at soundproofing and went ahead and bought a nice pair of headphones. I used my headphones for pretty much all my classes and thankfully they were comfortable enough to do that. If I were living alone I do not know that I would suggest using headphones unless you preferred it that way. But with other people in the apartment I thought it made the most sense. One note is that although I had the bluetooth, after a few weeks I started using the cord provided. Something with the bluetooth and zoom did not work all that well and using the cord, although unfashionable, made the sound much better.
So this one I did not get until after the semester, but I had used my friends for a while when I was staying with her during the early days of the semester. The laptop riser is a stand for your laptop that can be changed to a desired height. This allows you to raise your laptop closer to eye level to help you keep good posture while working on it for long periods of time. In my opinion the laptop riser is a much more affordable option than a sit to stand desk. Although one day I would love one of those.
Since buying the laptop riser I have noticed my posture more and check myself to make sure my posture is good. We as humans are not supposed to sit for long hours and during the semester my body hurt. That is a weird feeling too, hurting from sitting too much. But I was sitting slouched and not proper and it did not feel good. The laptop riser was not too expensive in my opinion and is easily movable. I think it was one thing that will help me greatly in my work from home life.
What I Want to Invest In
Second Monitor or Tablet
I have always been a one screen kind of gal. Before this semester I never worked on my laptop so much and therefore never needed a second screen. After completing my first semester I think it is almost essential to have a second screen of some sort. This could be just a second monitor that you plug into your laptop or a tablet of some sort. There were many times throughout the semester I would be taking notes on my computer while the professor shared their screen. Although I have a bigger laptop screen it was at times difficult to see what was typed on the slides. This was a problem as some professors do not make their slides available to students. I think a second screen would be super advantageous so that one could be dedicated to the zoom call and another for note taking and other programs used during class.
Now that I am using the laptop riser my keyboard is also raised. Although I can still use my keyboard effectively this way, it does tire my arms after while. I hope to invest in a bluetooth keyboard here soon to remedy this problem. This way I can still have my laptop at eye level, but my keyboard will be at a more comfortable level.
Along with buying a bluetooth keyboard I plan to buy a bluetooth mouse here soon as well. I am planning on getting a magic mouse so that I do not need a mousepad and can use it on all surfaces.
Although I knew online school was not my favorite method of learning I decided starting graduate school was the best option for me. There were struggles that came along with this semester, but I am glad I started. I am one semester closer to becoming a registered dietitian. My cohort is amazing and smart and fun and supportive. I am so glad I get to go through all of this with them. I hope that next year we will be able to go to campus for classes and I get to experience more of this small southern town and university. I have learned so much about public health, dietetics, remote work and myself during this time and I cannot wait to see what the next semesters have in store for me.