“I earned my bachelor’s degree from the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, which is now a part of Rutgers University,” Brekken explained, “and I went on to earn my master’s in human nutrition from Eastern Michigan University.”
Brekken’s educational qualifications sound fairly standard, but what her curriculum vitae leaves out is the fact that both degrees were earned entirely online. The Crookston, MN, native is a six-year veteran of the digital academic world. So, when Northland began chartering it’s new Dietetic Technician A.A.S. degree as a 100% online program—just the fourth of its kind in the nation—the administration was keen on finding a lead instructor that would not only embrace the online model, but be able to relate to the student experience as well.
“We’re really fortunate to have Angie because she’s walked that same path that our students will be walking,” Jodi Stauss-Stassen, Northland’s Dean Of Health, Nursing, & Public Services said. “She’s an online learner, and she understands what online learning is all about. We’re extremely excited about this new dietetic tech program, because the industry is really growing. We’re even more excited to have a faculty member like Angie on board leading the way.”
‘How Many Calories Are In a Cup of Water?’
Brekken’s passion with food science started at a remarkably young age. While most little girls were busy playing with Legos and Barbie dream cars, a rather inquisitive young Brekken was asking her mom about food. Well, almost food.
“My mom told me a story about when I was little,” Brekken said with a hint of childhood embarrassment. “She said I asked her how many calories were in a cup of water, to which she simply said ‘None, honey.’ So I guess I was always interested in nutrition, even back before I can remember.”
Though you might hear the word nutrition and immediately think of diet or weight loss (and all the frustration that often comes with it), to hear Brekken talk about her chosen profession, you come away believing that food is… well, fun.
“Nutrition is growing,” Brekken said confidently. “There are going to be more and more jobs that have to do with nutrition and preventative care. I see a lot of growth. Working with food is just plain fun, too. You get to work with a variety of people and cultures. You can work with customers or patients directly, or you can be a supervisor in a kitchen, for example, so you really get to capitalize on whatever your strengths are.”
For Brekken, her strengths go beyond food. Northland chose her to lead the new program because of her strong, successful history with online education. Brekken’s reputation and local experience also played a role in building a one-of-a-kind articulation agreement that opens up a new avenue for students who would otherwise be at an educational standstill.
A Unique Partnership
One of the top goals of Northland’s new online nutrition program is to attract students from around the country who are looking to take the next step in their professional careers. But Northland is also hoping to bring in students from just across the river… from a place that might seem counterintuitive.
Before the curriculum was set or the program was even approved, Northland reached out to Becky Rude, the 16-year director for the University of North Dakota’s Nutrition & Foodservice Professional Training Program to inquire about a potential articulation agreement. By itself, the idea was far from original. Northland has developed many agreements with regional universities to give NCTC students the option to continue their higher education at a four-year institution.
The goal of these articulation agreements is to give students a seamless transfer experience from one institution to the next, allowing Northland grads to jump right into a four-year program without having to retake classes or double up on credits. In this case, however, the roles were reversed.
Opening Up a Decades-Old ‘Dead End’
Since 1973, students completing UND’s nutrition program have been able to earn their Certified Dietary Manager, Certified Food Protection Professional (CDM, CFPP) credentials, qualifications that opened up opporutnities to manage foodservice operations in a variety of settings. Educationally speaking, however, these students left UND without a clear path to continue their studies or advance their careers. There was no option for them locally.
“It’s such a cool story of forward thinking,” Rude said, eager to share the details of this unprecedented partnership between UND and Northland. “Northland recognized the skills and knowledge that our students gain in the Nutrition and Foodservice Profession Food Training Program… even though we are a non-academic program, they opened up this wonderful opportunity for our students where they can now move directly into Northland’s new online program with 14 credits already to their name.”
According to Rude, not a week has gone by in her 16 years at UND when she hasn’t been asked by at least one student about further academic opportunities once they complete her Foodservice program. Up until now, that need had gone unmet, forcing students to leave the region to follow their goals.
“Without Northland’s [new] program, students in our program would otherwise be in a dead end for their educational career,” Rude said. “So it’s just so exciting to see this online option for them at Northland. This is definitely a win-win for the student.”
Thanks to Northland’s pioneering attitude that set this new partnership in motion, students (from all over the nation) will be able to continue their education without having to abandon their home, their family or their current position. And according to Rude, “there’s quite a demand right now for dietetic technicians, and demand will only be growing.”
You Are What You Eat… And Always Will Be
That old cliche is true. We are what we eat, and that equates to a lifetime of job security for those trained in nutrition… and the opportunities are aplenty.
As baby boomers age and transition into assisted living centers, the need for dietary managers and skilled foodservice personnel will be great. As the rates of Type II diabetes continue to rise, healthcare systems will increasingly rely on community health workers and health educators to inform patients about healthy eating habits as a tool for managing their disease. Because nutrition is fundamental to human health, Northland’s dietetic tech graduates will be in need throughout the greater healthcare system.
Brekken was quick to point out, however, that the job outlook is by no means limited to hospitals and retirement homes. “Dietetic techs work in a variety of settings,” she said. “Schools, health clubs, grocery stores, community health programs… there’s a wide range depending on what their interests are.”
In general, the public is becoming more aware of what they’re putting into their bodies. Thanks to technology and the wealth of information at our fingertips, people are learning that those boxed dinners many of us grew up with are, unfortunately, as unhealthy as they are convenient. The obesity epidemic has been fueled in large part by that notion of convenience. The belief that a healthy dinner can come out of a box and be ready in ten minutes also convinced us that the opposite is true—that cooking from scratch is too difficult and too time-consuming. Lately, thanks to the efforts of nutrition activists, those ill-informed beliefs are giving way to the truth.
“I think the nutrition field is going to keep growing, as more and more people are being mindful of what they’re eating and feeding their families,” Brekken continued. “There’s definitely a shift towards preventative health focusing on nutrition Instead of fighting with diabetes or obesity, people are wanting to eat better to stay healthy.”
Ready to Lead
As one of only four online programs in the nation, Northland’s new online Dietetic Tech program is poised to train the next generation of nutrition and foodservice experts at a time when the need could not be greater. Obesity-related healthcare costs are soaring, and diet is proving to be a major key in ending that deadly trend. For years to come, Northland graduates will become leaders in that fight.
For her part, Brekken has been hard at work developing the coursework for over a year. To set her students up for successful careers, she’s tapping into her years of on-the-job experience and the network of colleagues and contacts she’s developed throughout the industry. But she’s also looking inward, using her familiarity with online learning to put together a program that not only prepares students for their future careers, but one that also fits in with their needs outside of the classroom.
“A lot of online students have to work full time, maybe have children, or things they need to do during the day,” Brekken explained with a sympathetic tone in her voice. “I’ve been through it myself as an online student. I will be their cheerleader to succeed as a non-traditional student.”
That been-through-it-before quality is hard to find in university professors who lecture in front of classes filled with hundreds of nameless faces. No doubt those instructors are experts in their field, but what Northland offers is an education forged from real world experience. In this case, Brekken will deliver both—expertise and experience—to students located across the United States.
“I’ve been through it all myself and know it can be scary,” Brekken said, “but we’re all there to help you succeed. I’ve seen it. I’ve lived it… both in the online classroom and in my career. The support we have for students here at Northland is incredible.”
Health and wellness begins with education. Develop your expertise with Northland Community & Technical College’s innovative and 100% online Dietetic Technician program. Focus on being a leader in nutrition, dietetics and developing healthy lifestyles. Take the next step towards earning your dietetic technician degree online by requesting free information today.