UACCM Alumna Brings Nutritional Education to Hispanic Communities

 

woman standing in front of bookcases
UACCM Alumna Selena Garcia is pursuing her Master of Science in Nutrition with plans to support minority communities.

Selena Garcia has a clear mission: she wants to educate minority communities on nutrition and encourage more diversity among registered dietitians.

An alumna of the University of Arkansas Community College at Morrilton, her experiences helped drive her towards this career with meaning and purpose. Today, she is working towards her master’s at the University of Central Arkansas. Recently, she earned a highly respected internship at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, and she also works at Arkansas Children’s Hospital.

UACCM prepared her for a career with meaning, she said.

 

Alumna finds ideal match for her interest in education and medicine

Like many students, Garcia began her college life not entirely sure about her path, other than knowing she needed a bachelor’s degree. That uncertainty drove her to enroll at a community college.

“Ideally, it was just better for me to start my basics and figure out what I wanted to do at a community college,” she said. “And it was affordable and close to home. That’s something that I always preach about community college.”

After graduating with an associate degree in 2015, she returned to UACCM to take more general courses and received a Student Ambassador scholarship. Working alongside the college’s Admissions department, she guided tours for prospective students and was a representative to the public at official functions. The role also has profound purpose at the campus’ student life, as ambassadors are often seen at student events, encouraging others to participate.

Garcia, 2017.

Immediately, she sought to answer that question about where a college degree would lead her. She took advantage of student support services, mainly the Student Development office that offers career counseling. She took a test spanning four hours that matches the student’s personality and attributes to potential careers. The results recommended that she pursue either education or medicine.

The idea of teaching appealed to her. “Education is important to me and has played such a big role. I’m a first generation student, so I’ve seen what you can and cannot do without it,” she said. “In Arkansas, there’s also not a lot of Hispanic teachers. I can see myself being an asset.”

Then, she took a nutrition class and discovered a way to tie her interests of medicine and education by being a registered dietitian. An instructor told her about registered dietitians and spurred her to a career.

“That goes to show that these instructors really care about you,” she said.

In this profession, registered dietitians advise the public on how to eat in order to achieve a desired goal, whether it is to combat a chronic disease or condition like diabetes or to encourage people to be more proactive about their health.

It’s a job for foodies. “I only majored in this because I love food,” she jokes with her colleagues.

 

UACCM prepared graduate for her future

Garcia took her time to cover her prerequisites before transferring to a university.

Spending so much time at UACCM, she felt confident that the college prepared her for a university. She studied in the college’s 2+2 program, a structured plan where students spend two years at UACCM and two years at their transfer university to complete a bachelor’s degree in nutrition. She studied under the college’s 2+2 agreement with UCA that offered seamless transfer. As she graduated UACCM, she left with no student debt, and she never had to take a loan.

Most importantly, she felt that she knew how college worked. “Instructors here help you understand what a university will expect from you,” she said. “Just because it’s a community college doesn’t mean that it’s easier. UACCM teaches you how to write a paper appropriately, how to turn in assignments on time, and take advantage of a college’s tools.”

Her work as a student ambassador helped her grow with added skills, as she grew into the role of being a public face for the college. “I learned how to talk to people by giving tours and networking with the faculty,” she said.

She also sought to lend her ability as a bilingual speaker, and there was certainly a large population to serve. On tours, she often translated to Spanish-speaking parents of prospective students.

Graduating from UACCM in 2017, her passion for the college never left. She wanted to give back, so she took an administrative position in the UACCM Student Development office. Cody Davis, director of Student Development, said he was impressed by Garcia’s determination.

“It is no surprise to me that she has continued her education and will affect countless lives in the field of nutrition and dietetics,” he said.

 

A career with meaning

Now working towards a Master’s of Science in Nutrition, Garcia is always on the move. She gained a prestigious dietetic internship at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. The internship consists of graduate classes and an assignment at the Eugene J. Tobin Veterans Affairs Healthcare Center in North Little Rock.

Garcia said she found that her interest in nutritional wellbeing goes back to her culture. “Many in the Hispanic community don’t have the education about nutrition. They don’t know what a carb, a protein, or what a fat is,” she said.

Helping people in the Hispanic community understand the science about their food pushes her. She wants to encourage more diversity among dietitians. “Once I transferred, I found myself the only Hispanic in my classes. That really called my attention,” she said.

The lack of diversity mimicked some of her experiences in the clinical setting. It shocked her at first. “But it told me that I was in the right field,” she said.

Communication between a healthcare official and the Spanish-speaking public is also a problem, she said. Growing up, she had to interpret for several family members at doctor appointments. She points to how many healthcare facilities use a virtual translator, which cannot compare to the empathetic presence of a person. “You don’t get the experience of talking to your healthcare provider from talking to a tablet,” she said.

Along with her graduate program, she works at Arkansas Children’s Hospital as a dietitian's diet assistant/clerk—a part of a team of over 30 dietitians—and takes advantage of her bilingual speaking ability to help others. Translating clinical terms can be challenging, she said. “And each culture has a different way of saying things. Mexicans may have a certain term, while Guatemalans or Puerto Ricans or other groups may have another.”

One daunting challenge is having to explain that eating traditional Hispanic meals may not always be healthy. “When you go to a Mexican restaurant, you see tacos, tamales, rice, and beans. It’s all carbs, but that’s just our food.”

Much of her time at Arkansas Children’s Hospital is spent on cancer and diabetes education, especially working with the state’s Hispanic community. In her outreach, she teaches about counting carbs by using the Fitness Pal or Calorie King mobile applications.

“The hardest thing on them is moderating how they eat their traditional meals,” she said. “You can measure your foods with these apps, which aren’t necessarily Spanish-friendly. So, it’s important for a child of parents with diabetes to help. The parent can learn with their child.”

As a UAMS intern, she reaches out to Arkansas’s Hispanic community to inform. Recently, she participated in a virtual culinary class with the Mexican Consulate in Little Rock. She translated for an instructor as they prepared the meal together, with Garcia asking questions about the need of eating foods with different vitamins to support a healthy diet. She plans to continue teaching about nutrition to the public as she completes her master’s degree.

Ultimately, she hopes to return to be a faculty member at UACCM and teach nutrition at the collegiate level. Much of that goal rests on encouraging the next generation to enter the field, but it’s also a way for her community college experience to lead to a career with a deep meaning.

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