by Felecia Dispense
Being a distance student in an ACEND accredited dietetics program has its unique advantages and challenges. Pursuing this degree plan while living overseas in a foreign-speaking country, however, can take this experience to a whole new level.
I’ve completed most of my undergrad in Food and Nutrition with The University of Alabama (UA) while living in northeastern Italy. I’ve gained an immeasurable wealth of experiences and memories while in pursuit of my diploma. Here are a few key aspects I’ve learned about overseas life that make college career with UA a bit different from the norm:
The Time Difference
Because I live about 7 hours ahead of my university and most peers, notable scheduling factors must be considered. For example, proctored exams are usually open for a brief 2-3 day window. Stateside peers have the benefit of the full window, whereas a portion of my exam window will run through the middle of the night. In the same vein, assignment due dates are usually set at 11:59 p.m. CST, which is 6:59 a.m. the following morning for me. So while I may lose time in some aspects, in others it’s not all bad!
Group projects also pose a challenge for the overseas dietetics student. Often times, stateside students meet during the evenings to catch-up, but this is typically during early morning hours in Europe. To combat this time lapse, I ensure my group peers are aware of my time zone at the start of the semester. I also make certain that my contributions are thorough and timely.
The Language Barrier
While living in Italy has been postcard-worthy, the language barrier has presented me a few curveballs when completing coursework. For a farmer’s market interview assignment, I had no shortage of vendors, as markets are a daily aspect of Italian life. The challenge lied with their minimal to non-existent English. While I have no issues ordering wine, pizza, and gelato, conducting an interview is another story. Somehow, my limited Italian and adaptive “sign-language” were sufficient enough to complete the assignment. I was even gifted a free half of specialty buffalo mozzarella for sharing my time with them!
In another semester, I struggled to convey to the local pharmacy why I needed pH strips for food science experimentation. (I didn’t have time to wait for an Amazon box order of hundreds of strips to ship overseas, especially when I only needed a few). While the pharmacists and I eventually found mutual understanding, it was not without a lot of confusion, a bit of humor, and a healthy dose of Google Translate. Mamma Mia!
Proctors, Preceptors, and Professional Studies, Oh My!
A few classes require dietetics students to secure RD preceptors and a proctor for ServSafe certification. While living overseas can severely limit options for such assignments, I can assure you it is not impossible! I dug in my heels and networked (via email, phone, and often times in person on our military base). Persistence and flexibility are keys to success in general, but especially while studying overseas!
Studying food and nutrition while living overseas has allowed me to view courses through two cultural lenses rather than one. I am forever grateful for the countless insights my Italian counterparts have shared with me. I am also deeply impressed by their natural knowledge of food, nutrition, and climate-minded agricultural practices. The Italians have complimented my degree objectives with their own examples for balanced, healthy living, and have helped shape my cultural understanding of food and nutrition.
To any overseas students considering the pursuit of a distance dietetics program, these extra challenges are not closed doors. Reach out into your communities and don’t give up. More often than not, you’ll find professionals who are willing to take you in and help shape your learning experience.
About the Author
Felecia Dispense is a senior enrolled in the Didactic Program in Dietetics at The University of Alabama. She will be earning her B.S. in Food and Nutrition in May 2019. Her areas of interest include nutrition counseling, research, behavioral and medical nutrition therapies, and nutrition in the armed forces. She is a veteran and military spouse currently stationed in northeastern Italy with her husband, three children, and two cats. Outside of nutrition studies, she is involved with various volunteer organizations around her military community, to include the Red Cross, PTA, and nutrition education. During free time, she enjoys rock climbing, yoga classes, freelance artwork, and outdoor adventures with her family.