Jessica Soldavini, MPH, RD

Jessica Soldavini wrote the following very informative article about her experiences at the combined MPH-dietetic internship at UCLA and VA Greater Los Angeles. She was the SDA president ’09-’10, attended this program from ’10-’12, and is currently back in the Bay Area working for the Santa Clara County Public Health Department.

By the way, happy early match day everyone 🙂

Overview of VA Greater Los Angeles Dietetic Internship
The VA internship has 4 tracks: nondegree internship, combined internship with MPH from UCLA, combined internship with MS from CSULB, and combined internship from CSUN. I completed the combined MPH track. The internship is clinically focused.

Prior to beginning rotations, I had a two week orientation to the program. The orientation was very helpful and reviewed what I needed to know to be successful in the program, including things such as MNT and lab values for common conditions seen at the VA. The majority of rotations are completed at the West Los Angeles Medical Center (a few miles away from UCLA) and the Long Beach VA (next to CSULB). I also completed rotations at other sites including Children’s Hospital Los Angeles and WIC. For the majority of my rotations, I worked one-on-one with a preceptor. The preceptors are very helpful. By the end of my clinical and ambulatory care rotations, I was basically completing their jobs on my own. For one of the administrative rotations, I worked in a group 4 to complete various projects for the department. All of the interns also worked together to plan a National Nutrition Month campaign. I got 4 weeks of special interest rotations and spent two weeks interning at Head Start and two weeks writing a review article with a doctor from the VA as my preceptor.

Workload/Time Commitment
Interns work a 40 hour work week, monday-friday, and hours vary depending on the rotation. Monday’s are spent in classes with the other dietetic internship programs in southern california. The locations for the classes varies each week. All interns will have to commute at some point during the internship as rotations are at both the West Los Angeles and Long Beach VA Hospitals, as well as other sites such as Children’s Hospital Los Angeles and WIC. Driving on the 405 can be a nightmare, so I spent a lot of time sitting in traffic. I carpooled with some of the other interns to the classes, but carpooling to rotations was a little more difficult because the interns I lived near and I were not always at the same location or working the same hours.

Some rotations have homework assignments. The assignments and time it takes to complete them vary for each rotation, but typically include readings related to the rotations with a set of questions. Other assignments I completed included developing handouts, following a consistent carbohydrate diet and monitoring my blood glucose levels, and giving in-service presentations to medical staff. In addition to assignments for individual rotations, there were also a couple of papers and presentations. I was always given my assignments well in advance of the due dates and had plenty of time to complete them. By the end of the internship, I also needed to complete a few extracurricular activities, such as participating in a community outreach activity and attending a Los Angeles Dietetic Association meeting.

What it’s Like Being an Intern at the VA
I really enjoyed interning at the VA and learned a lot while I was there. It is kind of difficult to describe a “typical day” because what I did differed depending on the rotation I was in. Each rotation lasted about one to five weeks. Although a lot of interns find this stressful because as soon as you get used to doing something you move to something new, I enjoyed being able to learn so many different things. Rather than spending all of my clinical or community rotations working with one preceptor who specializes in one area of dietetics, I got to work with multiple different preceptors. Not only did this allow me to gain exposure to multiple different conditions and patients, it also allowed me to see different dietitians styles of work. The majority of patients at the VA are older men so I did not get too much clinical experience with women and children, which is one of the downsides to the program. Most of the patients I saw had a variety of multiple, complex medical conditions, which makes me feel prepared to work with any population in the future. One of the things that I enjoyed about interning at the VA was that the interns get a lot of respect and are able to do a lot. While at the VA, I never felt like I was in the way or just followed around my preceptor and watched what she or he did. Instead, I actually saw patients on my own. During clinical rotations, I participated in meetings with the other healthcare providers each day to discuss the care plans for the patients I saw. I felt as though the other healthcare providers respected the dietitians and interns and took into consideration what we said. Dietitians at the VA are able to do more than dietitians at other hospitals, such as order diets and supplements for patients. The VA also has electronic medical records, which makes writing notes and looking into a patient’s past medical history much easier. One of the things I feel is most valuable about being an intern in this program is that you get to do things that are actually useful and helping others, as opposed to “pretending” to do things. Instead of spending my clinical rotations completing case studies, for example, I was in charge of the nutrition care for actual patients. The internship director for the program is also very organized and helpful.

I completed my MPH from UCLA in Community Health Sciences. I really enjoyed the program, however, I do know other interns who did not like it as much as I did. One of the reasons that I chose this program was because I am interested in public health and wanted to get an MPH.It seems to me that the interns who were not very satisfied with the MPH were either not very interested in public health, or went into the program not really understanding what public health or an MPH was. The program does not focus on nutrition, so if you are looking to gain additional clinical nutrition knowledge, you may be better off completing the MS from CSULB or CSUN. One of the benefits of an MPH is that you are able to gain an additional skill set that opens up more job opportunities than if you were to get an MS.

By completing my MPH through the combined program, I saved both time and money because I completed it in four quarters instead of two years. I did not find it too overwhelming to complete in four quarters, but was always pretty busy. To make sure I completed the program on time, I met with my advisor each quarter and tried to complete all of the required courses during the first year. One aspect of the program that was a little frustrating was that I was not able to take some of the elective courses that I wanted, especially those offered in Winter and Spring, because I needed to get the required courses completed and did not have another Winter and Spring quarter where I could take the electives I had scheduling conflicts with.

The program includes introductory courses in environmental health, biostatistics, health services, and epidemiology. There is also a series of departmental core courses that you take in your first year. Two of these courses were on program planning, research and evaluation for public health programs and includes a group project completed over two quarters where you design a public health program and evaluation plan. The project was time consuming and I spent a lot of hours with my group members, but I found the skills that I gained from this class to be very valuable, especially if you are planning to work in the field of public health. I got to choose the remainder of my classes. There are some nutrition classes offered and I took a couple of them, such as “Maternal and Child Nutrition” and “Nutrition Policies and Programs.” If you enjoyed NST 166, you would probably enjoy these classes. There are also electives on a variety of other topics available.

Field Studies Requirement
There is a 400 hour field studies requirement for the MPH, which internship hours from community nutrition, special interest, and/or some of the administrative rotations count towards. While I was in rotations I used to meet this requirement, I needed to turn in weekly logs to my advisor at UCLA. Once I completed the 400 hours, I wrote a paper on my experience. The logs and final paper were not difficult or time consuming, so don’t be worried about these additional assignments.

Comprehensive Exam
In the fall of my second year of the program, I took the comprehensive exam. The exam is take home and I had a weekend to complete it. It was be a long and stressful weekend, but most people seem to do fine as long as they put some time and effort into it. Although the Masters Handbook mentions a thesis option, I was highly discouraged from this due to the time limitations of only being at UCLA for four quarters.

Maternal and Child Leadership Training Program
Students in the combined MPH program have the option to apply for the Maternal and Child Nutrition Leadership Training Program. I was a part of this program and found it very valuable. The professors involved offered guidance and mentorship. Some of the activities I was involved with through the program include attending a Maternal and Child Nutrition Conference and planning nutrition symposia.

I really enjoyed the program and highly recommend it. If you are interested in applying, I suggest you try to keep your grades up, gain work and volunteer experience, and get involved with SDA. When filling out my application, I tried to list ALL my work and volunteer experience, including tabling with SDA. Make sure you get to know some of your professors and work/volunteer supervisors so you have people who know you well and can write you good letters of recommendation. If you want to apply for combined program, you need to fill out a separate application for grad school in addition to the DICAS application. The deadline for applying for UCLA is before the deadline for DICAS.

In terms of advice for being an intern, try not to get too stressed out. It can be overwhelming because you are being put into a lot of new situations and may encounter questions or conditions you are unfamiliar with, but try not to doubt yourself. Keep in mind that it is a learning experience and you are not expected to know everything about nutrition. No one knows everything – not even dietitians with years of experience. Don’t be afraid to ask your preceptors questions or look things up. I also made a clinical notebook that I carried around in my pocket with information such as important equations and what certain lab values mean. I also recommend keeping some of your nutrition textbooks and notes as references, especially your MNT book. You don’t need to carry it around the hospital with you, but it may be helpful in preparing for rotations or if you have something you want to look up. Your Foodservice Management and Food Science notes and/or textbooks may also be helpful to keep for studying for the RD exam. Although it can be stressful, the dietetic internship is an exciting time and you will learn a lot. By the end of your internship you may be surprised by how much you actually know!

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