Five Rutgers Students Pioneer Role as On-Campus Nutrition Ambassadors–Helping Their Peers Have a Healthy College Experience

    • October 10, 2014

How does a university mobilize students to educate fellow students about good health and nutrition?

Supported by a soon-to-be-completed, state-of-the-art facility funded in part by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, five new Student Ambassadors for the New Jersey Institute for Food, Nutrition and Health (IFNH) at Rutgers University are part of an exciting new solution.

To be completed in 2015, the 80,000 square foot IFNH building will be a space for interdisciplinary dialogue about urgent issues related to nutrition and health. Made possible by a $10 million grant by RWJF, the largest private philanthropy in New Jersey, $36 million in capital support from the State of New Jersey, and a $10 million endowed research fund from a New Jersey-based philanthropist, the IFNH building will bring together faculty, staff, and students from across the university to work on complex problems of major health and economic importance, problems like childhood obesity. The approach: forge interdisciplinary teams with expertise in food science, nutritional science, exercise science, medical science, social science, law, and ethics.

One important component of the approach: A Healthy Dining Team that puts students on the front lines of educating students!

Healthy Dining Team

In the interdisciplinary spirit of the IFNH, the Student Ambassador program takes an activist approach to utilizing students to communicate peer to peer.

Director of the Healthy Dining Team Peggy Policastro, MS, RD maintains that a youthful point of view gives Student Ambassadors an advantage in positively influencing peers: “The IFNH Student Ambassadors offer a perspective on nutrition, health, and behavior that only young, educated minds can provide. They speak the language of young adults and are able to hone in on ways to encourage behavior change that may have not been thought of by veteran educators and researchers.”

The five current Student Ambassadors have unique perspectives and research passions.

Jesse Tannehill, a former Staff Sergeant in the U.S. Air Force, credits the active lifestyle of the military for his passion for nutrition and wellness. In particular, he says,  “There is no one out there doing what the IFNH is doing to curtail obesity.”

Mary Tursi, prior to attending Rutgers to pursue a degree in nutrition, earned a bachelor’s in English at Binghamton University in New York where she was also a Division I athlete in cross country and track and field.

Both Tursi and Tannehill work or volunteer at local hospitals for practical experience in dietetics.

Miranda Schlitt was eager to get involved with the IFNH because it “looks into developing multiple avenues of nutrition intervention.” Her specific interests lie in childhood nutrition, and the institute’s special focus on childhood obesity is something she finds especially appealing. She already has numerous research projects under her belt, including work on sodium and potassium levels in children. Schlitt hopes to work in a children’s hospital as a pediatric dietician.

Alexa Essenfeld has traveled to Brazil to work with malnourished children, and stateside, her involvement with the RU Healthy Dining Team led her to the IFNH. She is very pleased to be involved. “The Institute is an exciting state-of-the-art facility and I am honored to be a part of it.”

Rebecca Tonnessen is a student nutritionist for the RU Healthy Dining Team where she educates her peers, conducts research, and writes nutrition newsletters. She hopes eventually to earn a PhD in nutritional sciences. “I accepted the role of Student Ambassador because of IFNH’s emphasis on interdisciplinary research,” she explains.

Passionate and Purposeful

All five ambassadors have conducted research for publication or presentations, including some presentations at the national Food and Nutrition Conference and Expo. They share with the Institute’s founding director Peter Gillies, PhD a belief that healthy eating is vital for communities. As Gillies explains, “Part of our mission is helping these bright undergraduates prepare for careers in nutrition—whether in the food industry, in hospitals, in research, or in the community.”

Gillies is especially excited about how the new building will help IFNH advance this mission. “We are a place where food, nutrition, and health come alive at Rutgers and a place that fosters intellectual collisions among students, staff, and faculty.” As he characterizes the institute, “IFNH is a platform to use our best science to make New Jersey the ‘Healthy State’ and a model for the nation – and our Student Ambassadors are at the front lines of spreading our message.”

Gillies anticipates that Student Ambassadors will eventually be on all the Rutgers campuses and serve as a model for other academic institutions. “With their peer-to-peer efforts they are making the campus dining halls their laboratory as much as the labs in the new IFNH. They are helping us learn what modifies behavior and how to stimulate change for healthier lifestyles,” he says. “We’re providing an opportunity for them to work and learn in a different, interdisciplinary way: with researchers, clinicians, philosophers, and food ethicists.”

James Marks, MD, MPH, RWJF’s Senior Vice President and Director, Program Portfolios and the lead executive for grantmaking in New Jersey, is as enthusiastic about the program as Gilles and Policastro are. “The Foundation is very excited about the work being pursued by this unique institute,” he says. “We are very pleased to see IFNH engage students on many levels, including empowering them to make a difference with their peers. This is where change happens.”

More information about the Institute for Food, Nutrition & Health, the building design, and the Student Ambassador program can be found on the New Jersey Institute for Food, Nutrition and Health website.