Hi friend! Long time no chat… If you’re new here let me tell you a bit about myself. I’m Alexa, an MPH RD student at UNC Chapel Hill. That is a lot of acronyms, so let’s break those down. MPH = master of public health; RD = registered dietitian; UNC = University of North Carolina. I started this program in fall 2020 and completed a reflection on that semester here. When I accepted my offer to UNC I knew we would be virtual for at least one semester, if not for our whole first year. It turned out that we did complete the whole first year of the two year program virtually. After a whole year of virtual school I can certainly tell you virtual school is not my jam. I want to see my classmates, have hallway conversations, and leave my apartment every once in a while. Here I will give you a bit more detail about the program I am in as well as my personal experience with virtual learning.
Medical Nutrition Therapy (MNT)
Medical nutrition therapy aka MNT is one of the most important classes in this program and any dietetics program. MNT is evidence-based nutrition treatment plans provided by registered dietitians. This class is required and essential for anyone studying dietetics, but much of the information taught directly relates to clinical nutrition, or nutrition care that would be provided in the hospital. Our program places this course in the spring semester of the first year because, in non-COVID times, all first years would spend their first summer in a clinical rotation. Due to limited clinical internship spots and many of the second years still needing to complete their clinical rotations, I and some others are not in our clinical rotation this summer. But more on that later.
Going into this class I was pretty intimidated. Many of my classmates studied dietetics in undergrad and told me that what we had on our syllabus for one semester, they did in two to three semesters. It also did not help that the professor and our academic coordinator kept saying that this is the hardest semester of the whole program. But, I live to tell the tale, I completed MNT and feel somewhat confident in my ability. I say only somewhat because there will still be so much to learn during my clinical rotations next summer.
The course was taught all online, as all courses were this past year. We had lecture twice a week for a little under two hours. Honestly though, we could have had many more hours in lecture for this course. There really is so much to learn. One thing that was a bit difficult was the lectures were two hours straight with no break, and we often went over because of all of our questions. Being on zoom for that long at one time is exhausting and by the end of lectures it was sometimes difficult to concentrate on the content. To be fair, I think any class this long, whether on zoom or not and without a break would pose similar difficulties for me.
In the 14 weeks we had this class, we went over anthropometrics, biochemical data, the nutrition care process, the major body systems, common diseases of these systems, and the medical and nutrition treatment for the most common diseases. It was a lot, and like I mentioned earlier, we will only learn more as we move farther along in this program and into our clinical rotation. For this class there were homework assignments on some of the major disease states, a midterm and final which consisted of a written portion and a standardized patient encounter. Though the standardized patient experience is nerve-wracking, it is really helpful to have some practice using this knowledge in practice.
One thing I have been told multiple times since starting this program is to prioritize what is most important and that you don’t have to get perfect scores on all assignments in grad school. For me, and I’d guess most of my cohort, this was the class that was prioritized. This was the class that received the time and attention because the content in this class is a big part of the RD exam. So that is a lot, but if I haven’t reiterated it enough, this class is THE class for dietitians.
Nutritional Biochemistry, Metabolism, and Health
Biochemistry and chemistry classes in general have been some I’ve struggled with the most. I talked about that a bit here. So going into this class I was quite nervous. I was nervous because I expected this to be one of the most difficult classes I would take this semester, if not the most difficult. That turned out not to be the case. In many ways it frustrated me because I felt like I did not learn as much as I should have. This class was not nearly as difficult as the biochemistry class I completed in undergrad and that was a weird realization. Overall this class was frustrating because I and others as well believed we should have been challenged more. On top of that, they did not give us an option to test out of the class, but I had to pay for a class which I didn’t feel like helped me much. Throughout the class we did give feedback to the professors regularly, some of which was implemented, some of which was not.
As far as having this class online, it was not very engaging. The professors rarely answered chat questions, many of which were really important questions. The lectures themselves were an hour and fifteen minutes, which was a good amount of time, not too long and not too short. The class was assessed using assignments and exams. All of the assignments were group assignments while exams were individual. I did exceptionally well in this course and was honestly very surprised by that. But one thing I’ve learned during grad school is that grades aren’t necessarily as important as we’ve been taught that they are. I felt that here, because I really wanted to learn more and be challenged even if it would have ended with me receiving a lower grade. I also had to remind myself multiple times that this program has a high first time pass rate for the RD exam, meaning that the curriculum as it is prepares us well enough to become registered dietitians.
Nutrition Practicum Preparation
As part of this program we are required to complete a practicum. If you don’t know what a practicum is, it is a hands on learning experience where you use the knowledge you’ve learned from your classes. To complete the MPH at UNC all students are required to complete at least 200 hours of a practicum experience. Lucky for us dietetic students, this program uses our dietetic internship as our practicum. The dietetic internship is 1200 hours of field experience and therefore far exceeds the 200 hour minimum.
This 2 hour course is designed to prepare us for our practicum. We met once a week for an hour and talked about topics such as professionalism, cultural humility, dealing with conflict and more. This course was not terribly demanding as far as assignments. We created a resume and were given good feedback on it. After we were assigned our internship locations we were asked to create a presentation on the site as well as the surrounding area. We then combined this with others in our region and gave a regional presentation to the class. This was nice because it helped me learn more about North Carolina as a whole.
Lastly, we had a food service project that many of my classmates and myself found very frustrating. Unfortunately, if you are reading this because you are going to go into this program, I think they are going to keep it. In my opinion the menu planning software was just so not user friendly and that made it difficult to want to do this project. It also does not help that after working in foodservice, I know I do not want to be a foodservice dietitian. Many competencies were tied to this assignment and therefore it was one of the more intense assignments of this class. It also caused frustrations because the assignment instructions were not very clear and because of this all groups had to make edits to their assignments over the summer while working at our internships. One good thing that did come out of this is that after the grades were released and we were told we would have to resubmit parts of the assignment, a meeting was held to go over the difficulties to hopefully improve it the project next year. This was the first year they had done this project in this way and as a team, so we were happy that they seemed receptive to our concerns and recommendations.
Conceptualizing Public Health Solutions
This class discussed public health policy, and public health messaging. I found this class content more interesting than I expected. In the virtual space though, I did not like the way the course was structured for this online semester. The course was taught asynchronously with 4 mini-recitations. The mini-recitations were with the professor, but were for only 20 minutes each. There were also forum posts on weeks that we did not have recitations. The structure of the class lacked engagement, and myself and many others thought it could have been structured better. Seeing as classes should be in person next year, and the many negative comments I’m sure were given on the structure I don’t imagine this same structure will be used in the future. So if you are reading this because you’ll be in this program, I don’t think the structure should be anything you will have to worry about.
The actual content of the class was interesting. It was the first class I have taken that is related to healthcare policy and I learned a lot. I also enjoyed the assignments because they were somewhat self guided. At the beginning of the semester each student picked a public health topic that could be improved with policy change. So all students did different assignments. I liked this because we could look into policy related to our concentration. I did my assignments on inequities related to food assistance programs and food allergy sufferers. All of the assignments were related to the topic you chose at the beginning of the semester. The first assignment was detailing the problem. In the next assignment we used the new public health code of ethics and produced a voice thread discussing some of the ethics points in relation to your topic. The third assignment included creating a fact sheet for policy makers to learn about your problem and detailing how you could get your policy idea approved. The last assignment was practicing public health messaging by creating a blog post, op-ed, and tweets for general readers to learn about the public health problem and action steps for readers. It was nice that all of the assignments went together. I also appreciated that we were able to pick a topic that really meant something to us. This made it easier when the semester got difficult and I did not want to do any more work.
There was one assignment that did not directly related to the others. This assignment was a health system comparison assignment. Each student was randomly given a country and told to research that countries health system. The written portion of this assignment included detailing the health system as well as comparing it to the United States health system. Due to us being in the midst of the pandemic, some of the questions were related to the pandemic response. After completing the written assignment, we had a full class zoom where we were split into groups to discuss the different countries’ health systems. Unfortunately, this was one of those days with extreme zoom difficulties. We could all see that the professor was quite overwhelmed when things did not go as planned. We were still able to break out and discuss different health systems, but not as extensively due to the technical difficulties taking so much time.
Going into this class, I did not think I would care for it that much. Despite the difficulties with engaging with the material at times, I did enjoy this class. I still don’t think I will ever work in policy, but I think it is important that I have some more formal education on it.
Implementing Public Health Solutions
This was by far my least favorite class of this semester. At this point I would like to say sorry to my future self because I did not pay much attention in lecture at all. This whole class was a continuation of Understanding Public Health Issues that is taken in the first fall semester. This class is set up to have you work in a group to design program for the public health problem you and your group identified and studied in the fall semester. The problem for my team was that our topic had little data. We had no data on interventions that had worked in the past, because very little work has been done on the problem we chose. Thankfully, my team chilled out a bit this semester and we were able to work better together than we did last semester. Despite not giving my all in this class and not paying close attention in this class I think it could be a very valuable class for most working in public health. My biggest frustration with it was that I was not working on a nutrition related topic. I feel that this class would have been a much more valuable experience had we all been able to work on a concentration related topic.
Last semester I wrote about group work in my post here. I thought it made sense to keep a similar format and discuss group work again. This semester we also had group work. One of the groups was the same as last semester as we continued the project we had started on last semester. The other groups were random as they were in classes that were not continuous from last semester.
The group that I had for both semesters honestly got better this semester. Last semester we only got a pass and not a high pass and I believe that chilled us all out. We also had a better and more receptive teaching assistant who helped us with our questions and concerns. This semester we all had a lot on our plate so we did not have time to waste and I felt like my time was respected more than it was before.
The other groups I had were all in within my cohort and for my nutrition related classes. This helped because we all knew each other already and also had the same class schedule. These groups were all real chill and easy to work with. For most of these group projects we would split up the work evenly and then meet to review the final assignment before turning in. This allowed us not to waste too much time on zoom.
When completing a graduate degree, you will likely have to complete some group assignments. My advice is to be open about how everything is working for you and set your boundaries early. I also heard from other classmates that they would take a few minutes at the beginning of their meetings to do check ins before starting on the assignment. My groups did not formally do this, but I would be interested to see if this could have helped us. But all in all, as long as you pull your own weight and help the group to achieve the grade you all desire I think you should be alright.
This semester I stayed in Chapel Hill most of the semester. This was different from the last semester where I went and did much of my remote work from family and friends houses. At the end of the fall semester I got an in-person job which meant leaving town was more difficult than before.
This semester I did spend more time in Chapel Hill and Carrboro, but I still don’t feel like I got the whole experience. We were still online, so I have not spent much time on campus. Except for a few times when a friend and I went to study outside the Gillings building. I was able to explore some of the parks and trails more and even tried some more of the local restaurants. But between school, work, and things still being shutdown I still struggle to understand the allure of Chapel Hill. I do imagine that in the fall, when we get to be back on campus and life is more back to normal I will learn even more about Chapel Hill and Carrboro and all it has to offer.
This past year I was the events coordinator for Gillings Student Government Association (SGA). This position ended up being more difficult than expected. I had lots of trouble getting student engagement and heard from multiple people that they would not go to any event on zoom that was not required.
Through this position I have been trying to work on delegating tasks and working in a team. This was challenging as well as so many of our members had lots of responsibility be that school, jobs, family, and real life adulting things. But through this position I learned a lot. I am glad I joined an extracurricular in graduate school as it has helped me to meet others outside of my concentration. Due to so many of our classes being so large and online it was difficult to meet people that way, but being a part of this organization I’ve met great people within the Gillings School.
I was allowed to keep my position for next year and I imagine it will bring along some new challenges. As of now, we should be able to be in person. Hosting in-person events will be different than online events and I am excited to connect with even more students in the coming year!
Last semester I talked a bit about how it was difficult moving in the middle of the pandemic. Thankfully, most if not all of my cohort members received the COVID-19 vaccine in January and February. This allowed more of us to hang out and get together and not worry as much about getting the virus and infecting others. Throughout the semester I was able to meet almost all of my classmates and some of my friends from SGA. It was so fun getting to see all of these new friends in person, and just hang out with them. After some of the hangouts we had this past semester I know that next year we will have a grand time hanging out and making the most of our last year of graduate school.
This semester was the semester with the most credit hours during this whole program. This semester had 15 scheduled credit hours. On top of all the credit hours I also had a part-time job. Keeping check of my schedule this semester was important. I used my passion planner to keep up with all of the assignments and class meetings. Last semester I had tried using Google Calendar, and struggled with it. I think this is just a reminder to figure out what works for you and online calendars don’t work well for me.
Technology, maybe surprisingly, is not always my strong suit. Unfortunately I feel as if I had lots of technology problems and will be happy to be back in person next year. I discussed most of the technology I used and the apps my cohort used to stay in contact on my post from last semester. I did not use any other new technology apps during this semester. And to be fair, most of my technology problems relate to bad internet service. So if you are ever working from home or doing virtual school just make sure to have decent internet service.
Work From Home Gear
What I Have
As I am sure you have become aware of by this point in the post, there are a lot of things I already discussed in my post from last semester. In that post I discussed blue light glasses, bluetooth noise cancelling headphones, and the laptop riser.
Since my last post I did get a few of the things I had in the what I want to invest in section. This includes a bluetooth keyboard and bluetooth mouse.
Apple Magic Keyboard
So to be honest, I may be a brand buyer. For the most part, I have always had good luck and good experiences with Apple products. I do think they may be a bit overpriced, but I am a person that would rather pay a little more for a good product that will last. And I do my best to keep my personal belongings nice.
After buying the laptop riser I knew I needed a bluetooth keyboard. Typing on the laptop riser is weird ergonomically and not comfortable for long periods of time. So I saved up some money and went ahead and bought the magic keyboard. I have enjoyed using the magic keyboard. So far, it keeps its charge for a long time and it is light weight and easy to transport. It automatically connects to my laptop and I don’t have to mess around or wait for it to connect.
I am definitely happy with this purchase. I don’t know that everyone needs to buy the Apple brand of the bluetooth keyboard, but it has worked well for me. If you are looking to save some money, or are not a loyal Apple customer, there are many options out there for bluetooth keyboards. I am sure you will find one that will work for you.
Apple Magic Mouse
This was another thing I bought after the beginning of the semester. Like the keyboard, it is nice when the laptop is on the riser to use the mouse at a more comfortable level. The magic mouse is super sleek and easy to use. After initially being connected to the laptop it easily reconnects without much difficulty. The magic mouse also holds its charge very well so far. I will say that I have not had it long, so I don’t know what the lifespan of these product are, but I hope with continued care that I will be able to use them for a long time.
Just like the keyboard, there are other bluetooth mouse options. I did not look too deeply into the other options, but there are many posts out on the internet comparing different options. Those tech blogs are probably better for getting information on the details of all the product options within the price range you are looking at.
What I Want to Invest In
Second Monitor or Tablet
Last semester I mentioned that I would be interested in a second monitor or a tablet. It would be helpful to have some sort of second screen, whether that be a second monitor or tablet. Of the tools I discussed last semester this is the only one I have not invested in yet. Unfortunately, the desk I have in my bedroom is not that large and a second monitor with everything else would have been very crowded. I do believe if I do more work from home in the future that I will try to get a bigger desk and a second monitor.
I also like the idea of a tablet to write out notes on instead of typing as writing is said to help kind of solidify the content in your brain. After buying both the keyboard and mouse, I did not go forward with finding a tablet. Despite the fact that I see potential use for a tablet, it did not feel like something that was totally essential at this time. So we will see if I go forward with buying one in the future.
This semester was pretty challenging. There were a lot of classes this semester, totaling up to 15 credit hours, I worked a job and we were still doing it all online. After a year online, I would say I don’t enjoy online learning, or at least not 100% online learning. There were many times I felt like I was missing out on learning opportunities because we were not in person and that was frustrating. I am so excited that as of now all the messaging is suggesting that we will be back in person next fall.
I don’t regret starting in the pandemic, had I done anything differently I wouldn’t have gone through this with my cohort, which would have been so unfortunate. I am forever grateful of how awesome, and helpful and close our cohort is. If you are reading this because you are going into a difficult graduate program, my biggest piece of advice would be connect with your cohort as often and as much as you can. Work together, ask each other questions, and just hang out and enjoy your time outside of schoolwork as well.
I am still so excited to become a registered dietitian. I honestly cannot believe I already finished my first year of classwork in this program. It is going by so fast and I have learned so much and know I will continue to learn even more every day. No matter where you are in your journey, or where you hope to go just know that it will go by fast and to enjoy every second of it.