A new, collaborative project from the University of Arizona, Arizona Western College, and Imperial Valley College will develop an educational pipeline for nutrition and dietetics professionals in Yuma, Arizona— thanks to a $983,112 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA).
The project, entitled SALUDABLES (Strengthening Awareness for Living Healthy Using Dietetics Approaches and Boosting Local Educational Success), will address health and educational disparities in the Southwest border region by increasing interest in nutrition and health careers and creating a clear educational pathway for students in Yuma and Imperial counties.
“Stakeholders in the Yuma community identified a need for more nutrition and health professionals in the area,” explained project director Ashlee Linares-Gaffer, associate professor in the University of Arizona School of Nutritional Sciences and Wellness. “It’s difficult to recruit and retain healthcare professionals in rural environments. Even though the pay can be quite competitive, people who come in from other places often don’t stay long-term. SALUDABLES will build a pipeline so that students from the area can complete their training, start to finish, in Yuma, in the hope that students will stay and build their professional careers there.”
SALUDABLES builds on existing partnerships between UArizona Yuma and the two community colleges in the area, Arizona Western College and Imperial Valley College. Students can already complete the first two years towards a bachelor’s degree in nutritional sciences at AWC or IVC and transfer to UArizona Yuma for their final two years. The new project will extend the educational infrastructure in two directions, with outreach to local K-12 schools as well as financial and academic support to help students apply to graduate schools and competitive professional internships, both of which are required to earn the registered dietitian credential.
“We’ve worked hard to develop a hybrid of online and in-person coursework for the juniors and seniors who come to us from the community colleges,” said Tanya Hodges, Regional Academic Program Manager for UArizona Yuma. “But now we need to help them with the next steps: How do we make them highly qualified candidates for master’s programs? How do we give them support so they can be successful in the graduate coursework? How do we help them get all the way to the finish line?”
One way SALUDABLES will try to meet those challenges is mentorship at every level. “We want to keep people engaged for as long as possible throughout the process,” Linares-Gaffer said. “This grant will help us create mentorship systems that are repeatable and scalable, so that every year you have undergrads and grad students going out to the high schools for outreach, then you’ve got grad students mentoring our undergrads, and hopefully alumni who are working dietitians mentoring the grad students.”
Stackable credentials are another way SALUDABLES hopes to keep students invested as they move along the pipeline. The USDA / NIFA grant will help partner institution AWC develop coursework that will offer their students the option to earn a certificate in health coaching while they pursue an associate’s degree.
“Some of these students are overwhelmed with the whole concept of going to a four-year college, much less graduate school,” explained Jane Peabody, Arizona Western College Coordinator of Physical and Wellness Education. “If you can just start them with that first step, earning that certificate, it helps them to believe they can complete the next step. Plus, then they can work in their area of expertise while they’re in school, since most of our students also need to work.”
The grant for SALUDABLES is part of NIFA’s Hispanic-Serving Institution (HSI) Education Grants Program, which supports the efforts of HSIs to foster academic development and career attainment for underrepresented groups. “All three partner institutions are HSIs,” Linares-Gaffer said. “The majority of our students in Yuma are Hispanic and Latinx, and a lot of them are first-generation college students. SALUDABLES will help these students navigate the higher education system, and it will increase diversity in the field of nutrition and dietetics, which is something we really need.”
Peabody agrees that students need to see successful professionals with backgrounds similar to theirs. “It really brings more to the students if [their mentors] are homegrown,” she said. “They’ve been in those shoes; they’ve sat in those seats; and so if they can do it, it’s attainable for our students, too. I’m really looking forward to watching it come full circle.”