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Students in the University of Nevada, Reno’s Dietetic Internship Program persevered through the pandemic by developing unique skills to help patients virtually.

Traditionally, students in the Department of Nutrition, as well as other students throughout the United States, go through an online application process with the goal of being matched with a dietetic internship. This is a necessary step to becoming a Registered Dietician Nutritionist. The Department’s Program participates in this application and matching process, and every six months Karon Felten, director of the internship program, and Arezou Saeedi, assistant director of the internship program, evaluate applicants from across the country to be chosen for this online matching process.

Every cycle, seven to eight students are matched with the Program and placed in one of five hospitals in northern Nevada or one of three training sites in Las Vegas to begin their seven-month supervised learning experience under the guidance of preceptors, who are experienced professionals that guide students through their internship. The training is intense but necessary to obtain the skills needed to become an entry-level dietitian.

During the pandemic, Felten had to adapt the program due to COVID-19 restrictions that displaced interns from their training sites while maintaining the quality and professionalism students expect. Every week, Felten and Saeedi met with students through Zoom and guided them through case studies that simulate in-hospital scenarios. Students presented educational projects based on what they learned and participated in telehealth observations to help patients online.

“Although it was different from the typical program, these students were still able to access intense training and brush up on their medical nutritional therapy skills that they may otherwise would not have gotten in the hospitals,” Felten said. “Understanding the benefits of telehealth and online health care is especially important in Nevada, where it allows rural areas access to these resources.”

Through these challenges, students completing the internship program are prospering in school and beyond. After completing the program, students take a national exam before becoming credentialed as a registered dietitian. While the goal for first-attempt passage is 80%, students in the Department’s program are succeeding with a 90 to 95% passing rate on their first attempt. Once they have passed the exam, students are going on to make significant contributions in the field or continuing their education to earn master’s or doctoral degrees.

“Part of my internship I did remotely, and there are obviously pros and cons to this,” Sarah Barragan, a current student in the program, said. “We weren’t helping people in hospitals like we typically would. Patients were out in the community, and sometimes reception or internet connection was bad and got in the way of the appointment, but the convenience for the patients was amazing. For us, it was also great because they could show us their pantry on their phone, which is information we wouldn’t typically have.”

In addition to making sure students are doing well in their internships, Felten and Saeedi also work on keeping the program accredited through the Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND).

Jolyn Wirshing, an instructor who became the director of the Didactic Program in Dietetics in January, has been working with her to ensure the program meets requirements and that graduating students are eligible to become registered dietitians.

Wirshing works with students to support them throughout the application process, and she makes sure they’re meeting all the guidelines for the program and succeeding the whole way through. Communication and support are a key component to the program, especially during this past year, and both Felten and Wirshing were always accessible via Zoom or phone to help or answer questions.

“Although this past year presented challenges, our students were adaptive, and we had a wonderful success rate,” Wirshing said. “Whenever they had questions, we were able to jump on Zoom immediately to tackle the problem together, and overall, it made getting help and asking questions more accessible.”

The program, part of the College of Agriculture, Biotechnology & Natural Resources, stands apart from the typical program by being shorter but still adhering to an intensive curriculum that prepares students for the board exam and professional world. Although it runs for seven months compared to the typical 15 months, students still get the hours and experience they need to succeed.

“I really did like the program,” Emily Spellman, a student who just graduated from the program, said. “I think I got a good variety of experiences, and it was great that the program was accelerated, and I was still able to intern full time. Even though some of the program was impacted by health restrictions, I don’t think I missed out on anything. Plus, we had weekly meetings and Karon was always checking in to make sure we were doing okay, so I felt really supported by the entire program.”

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