Internship Builds Cadre of Native Nutrition Experts

Volume 21, No. 4 - Summer 2010
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ALLISON ALBERS

FOOD CAN BE FUN. Allison Albers tries to convince children that nutrition can be both delicious and interesting. Photo by Brenda Ling

Unlike the typical mainstream college student, Allison Albers is a mother, wife, and student at United Tribes Technical College (UTTC, Bismarck, ND). With a husband, three children, and a fourth on the way, Albers manages her responsibilities and busy life carefully, balancing family obligations with her academic and professional goals.

Despite her demanding schedule, Albers participated in an internship program for UTTC students at the USDA Agriculture Research Service (ARS) laboratories. Last summer, Albers (Standing Rock Sioux) worked with scientists, dieticians, and fellow interns interviewing children and talking to them about the principles of nutrition and hygiene she studied at UTTC. “The internship far exceeded my expectations. It was a great opportunity and experience, and it opened doors for me,” she says.

The community-based project was designed to increase understanding of how middle school children think and make choices about healthy eating. Albers advocated better food choices, particularly promoting fruits and vegetables, as well as physical activities. She showed the middle schoolers how to make a fun and healthy snack: a “veggie face” with ranch dressing spread on a whole wheat bagel half.

Half of the interns, including Albers, had internships at the Grand Forks Human Nutrition Research Center (GFHNRC), which is one of only six centers for human nutrition research in the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Albers was one of five Native American student interns working at the GFHNRC last summer.

This internship program is one way the USDA seeks to expose bright students to career possibilities in the biological, agricultural, and environmental sciences, including those in the Agricultural Research Service. Relatively few Native American students are going into those fields – and fewer still at the graduate level.

Albers says, “My future goals are to work primarily with Native American families who live on reservations in North and South Dakota. My focus is to provide education and assistance to these families on the important topics of proper nutrition and adequate exercise. With the continuing epidemic of chronic disease, including obesity and diabetes, I feel that it is very important to have qualified health care workers to address these issues.”

Albers recently completed an Associate’s Degree in Community Health at UTTC in May 2009, and she finished the UTTC early childhood education program in 2004. Last fall, Albers entered the University of North Dakota, Grand Forks, ND, with a major in pre-Dietetics. She intends to continue her education with graduate study in nutrition or public health. “My plan is to use my education as a dietitian and be able to direct it into various settings of the community such as USDA-supported Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) food assistance programs; diabetes prevention programs; school settings; public health organizations; and home environments.”

ALLISON ALBERS

APPLES, ANYONE? Allison Albers leads a discussion about the importance of fruits and vegetables. Photo by Brenda Ling

“People like Allison are needed to address these problems,” says Jerry Combs, director of the Grand Forks Human Nutrition Research Center. “Assuring the sustainable production of safe, healthy, and accessible food is important to everyone,” he explains. “Realizing that goal calls for finding answers to some knotty problems ranging from the sustainability of soil and water resources, to the efficiency and diversity of cropping systems, to the healthfulness of foods, food habits, and health practices.”

With support provided by ARS, the internship program was developed several years ago. Since 2005, a total of 38 Native American students, including 20 from UTTC, have completed eightweek summer internships at five ARS laboratories and research centers in the Dakotas and eastern Montana.

UTTC is the only tribal college or university (TCU) participating in the internship program at this time. The University of Arizona, which also serves Native American students, has also partnered with the USDA. The interns are selected by their academic institution. They receive salary support as temporary federal employees, and some travel and living expenses are paid.

Five ARS labs (in Fargo, Mandan, and Grand Forks, ND; Brookings, SD; and Sidney, MT) participate in this program. The cost, just over $5,000 per intern, is paid by ARS Office of Outreach, Diversity, and Equal Opportunity.

“We designed the program to provide experiential learning to complement the formal academic programs offered by the partner institutions,” Combs says. “This is particularly valuable for tribal colleges and universities, many of which are rurally isolated, as it addresses the need for opportunities to weave science education and practical research around critical health issues facing American Indian populations. Our goal is to provide relevant and supportive internships that allow students, as future tribal leaders, to better understand and prepare for real world challenges.”

“We expect that the ARS internships will also serve to help UTTC, along with other TCUs, to define something being referred to as ‘tribal food sovereignty’ by Native professionals and traditionalists,” says Phil Baird (Sicangu Lakota), UTTC vice president.

“This has been a goal of UTTC and other tribal organizations. We have been exploring how tribal people can regain what their ancestors had – an independent, organic, and nutritious system of producing food in balance with Mother Earth’s resources and Native spiritual beliefs,” he adds.

For information about the ARS Native American Internship Program, contact Susan Sorum, Grand Forks Human Nutrition Research Center, susan.sorum@ars.usda.gov; or Dr. Don McLellan, director, ARS Office of Outreach, Diversity, and Equal Opportunity, don.mclellan@ars.usda.gov.

Dr. Gerald Combs, Jr. is the director, and Susan Sorum is the administrative officer of the Grand Forks Human Nutrition Research Center, Grand Forks, ND. Dr. Phil Baird (Sicangu Lakota) is vice president of academic, career, and technical education at United Tribes Technical College, Bismarck, ND. Combs sits on the UTTC Research Advisory Committee and Institutional Review Board. Sorum coordinates this internship program.


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