Meet the Winners of the HUM x Diversify Dietetics 2022 Grant

Meet the impressive winners of the HUM x Diversify Dietetics 2022 grant: three aspiring dietitians who are passionate about making the world a happier, healthier place for everyone.

Becoming a dietitian is no small feat: In addition to earning a bachelor’s degree, RDs are required to take on several additional years of schooling and internships plus tuition and exam costs. Such barriers often prevent people from entering the field of dietetics, which has caused a lack of diversity in the field.

Nutrition and healthy habits are a crucial part of preventing chronic disease. Representation of professionals to help populations that are disproportionately affected by chronic disease (in part due to socioeconomic and social justice-related issues) is vital. 

That’s where Diversify Dietetics comes in. Their objective is to increase the racial and ethnic diversity in the field of nutrition by empowering nutrition leaders of color.

At HUM Nutrition, one of our core values is diversity. We believe that including different backgrounds and perspectives is essential to every field, including dietetics. The lack of representation in nutrition may prevent people from seeking out the professional help they need to live a happy, healthy life—and we want to help change that. We’ve partnered with Diversify Dietetics to offer a grant of $24,000 total to three aspiring dietitians. (Learn more about our partnership and the issues facing underrepresented students who wish to enter the field.) Grant recipients will also have full access to the robust Diversify Dietetics community and programming, which includes but isn’t limited to workshops, webinars, and mentorship programs.

Get to know the three winners of the 2022 HUM x Diversify Dietetics grant. These three individuals are passionate about reaching communities that are often underrepresented and therefore underserved in the field of nutrition. They’re as determined to make the world a happier, healthier place for everyone as we are. We’re proud to help them do it.

Dennie Byam

Dennie Byam headshot

What Area of Dietetics Are You Most Passionate About?

I’m most passionate about education and advocacy, which I believe go hand in hand. I’m passionate about public policy advocacy because this area will allow me to use my education and training in law and litigation to help zealously advocate for health care and food access and educate my community in the areas of health equity, disease prevention, and treatment. I’ve always attempted to lead a healthy lifestyle, and I am now more equipped to delve into this area of dietetics with my legal training as well as my education and understanding of nutrition.

How And Why Did You Get Involved in Diversify Dietetics?

I learned about Diversify Dietetics through my dietetic program director, Dr. Katherine Burt. I attended the information session and learned that the mission of Diversify Dietetics is to increase the racial and ethnic diversity in the field of nutrition by empowering nutrition leaders of color.

I believed that I fit right in for several reasons. To start, I am a minority who grew up in a household with an Italian-American stepfather and a Caribbean (Antiguan) mother, so I grew up exposed to Italian, Antiguan, and Black-American culture. I grew up in New York, but I went to undergrad in the South and law school in the Midwest, so every time I moved, I experienced new cultures.  As a member of my sorority, I’m exposed to anyone and everyone in Westchester County who attends our events. CUNY Lehman is also in the Bronx, which is a very diverse school and city. All of these experiences have contributed to my open-minded nature, which is why I know I will be able to contribute greatly to the field of dietetics.  

What Have Been the Biggest Obstacles You’ve Had to Overcome in Your Journey to Becoming an RD? 

The biggest obstacle that I had to overcome in my journey to becoming an RD is returning to school full-time while still practicing law full-time during the global pandemic. This was challenging for several reasons. Working full-time and going to school full-time is exhausting: I was going straight from work to school during the week. During some semesters, I had weekend classes. It was also difficult adjusting to work and school during the pandemic. I started at Lehman in June 2020, so a lot of the programming was still being tweaked since everything was uncertain.  Additionally, my educational background is in public relations and law. Science was a new educational challenge that I needed to learn and adjust to quickly as this degree has a lot of science. All of these factors combined made getting this degree challenging, but I completed it in six semesters by going to school non-stop for the past two years.

What Is Your Favorite Snack or Go-To Meal?

I have a major sweet tooth and I’m Caribbean-American, so my favorite snack is fruit. More specifically, mangos and pineapples, but I also love a berry medley with blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, and strawberries. Fruit is my favorite snack because I know that I am eating something nutritious, and (especially with the berry medley), full of antioxidants.

Karina Castillo

Karina Castillo headshot

How And Why Did You Get Involved in Diversify Dietetics?

The mission and vision of Diversify Dietetics strongly resonate with me on a professional and personal level. Many of my internships and volunteer experiences have been focused on working with marginalized communities, especially those of Latinx heritage. One such experience was my internship as a Spanish translator at a community clinic for expecting mothers. I learned that many of them had little to no education on how to manage their gestational diabetes. 

These interactions hit a personal note–as a first-generation Mexican-American, I grew up hearing similar stories at home. When my mother emigrated from Mexico, she found herself in a similarly precarious position during her first pregnancy: unsupported and without knowledge of or access to proper nutrition. Now, with a degree in nutrition under my belt, I better understand just how vulnerable my mother’s situation was and that her situation is unfortunately far from unique in this country. There is a clear need for immigrants and first-generation Latinx individuals to learn valuable health and nutrition skills in order to succeed in a new country. 

What Have Been the Biggest Obstacles You’ve Had to Overcome in Your Journey to Becoming an RD? 

From 2019 to 2021, I was working 50 hours per week at two jobs to save money to pay for a portion of my master’s program. Then, my father was suddenly diagnosed with end-stage pancreatic cancer and passed away April, 16th 2021. This was the most shocking and heartbreaking moment of my life. I moved back in with my mom to help her pay the house mortgage and also provide emotional support. These drastic changes took a toll on my mental health, and I had to leave one of my jobs to cope with my loss. I worked all throughout my first semester at UCS, struggling to complete projects and deadlines. I’m currently a full-time student and dietetic intern, and have stopped working, which has made house and school payments even more difficult. This scholarship means a lot to me and my mom, as it has helped relieve some of the stress associated with each school bill.

What Has Been One of the Most Interesting Things You’ve Learned in Your Journey?

Throughout my journey in dietetics, I have learned a great deal about just how important proper nutrition is for individuals. Recently, I learned about the various impacts that influence a person’s longevity and health span. Shockingly, living in poverty shortens the lifespan and increases the early onset of most diseases by 15 years. This can, in part, be attributed to the nutritional challenges presented while living in poverty such as inadequate access to fresh foods and a lack of nutrition education. People of color disproportionately experience poverty in the United States and, due to that, may fall into this disheartening statistic. I believe this emphasizes the importance of diversity in dietetics. As diverse dietitians, we can connect and aid the community we grew up in to help change these disparities. 

What Is Your Favorite Snack or Go-To Meal?

My favorite food, which I am always happy to snack on, is cheese. Cheddar, pepper jack, mozzarella—I love all cheese! A grilled cheese sandwich with tomato soup is my go-to comfort food. 

Rachel Ashley Parungao Reyes

Rachel Ashley Parungao headshot

What Drew You to the Field of Dietetics?

My family and my own personal health inspired me to pursue dietetics. I’ve been blessed with such wonderful parents and a beautiful childhood growing up in the Mariana Islands. However, as a child, I stood by my mother’s side as we accompanied my father to medical appointments and operations for kidney stones and heart surgeries. Watching and supporting him through his recovery was equally empowering. It was a lifestyle change for our whole family. I was only 11, but I started learning more about the role of nutrition in the prevention and management of disease. 

It was also around this time that I started experiencing outbreaks of eczema, as a result of food and environmental allergies unbeknownst to me at that time. No treatment, no cream, no pill worked. At 17, I took it upon myself to experiment with my diet and closely look at what foods triggered my condition. After a year of doing this, my skin cleared up, and I finally felt like my condition didn’t control or define me anymore.

I am so passionate about sharing what I have learned in my experiences, my schooling, and my dietetic internships with my Mariana Island community–where rates of chronic disease are disproportionately high and stories like my own are commonplace. I hope to inspire others, share my knowledge while learning from my community, and effect positive change in the way we eat and live.

What Area of Dietetics Are You Most Passionate About?

There is a great need for registered dietitians in the Mariana Islands. I’ve also had the privilege of accumulating experience in school nutrition, which is why I have a passion for the systemwide approach to effecting change at our schools. 

But I am also very passionate about clinical nutrition and working with interdisciplinary healthcare teams to provide nutrition education and therapy to patients diagnosed with chronic or acute diseases. I have been very inspired by clinical nutrition, including chronic disease management (for diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and kidney disease), maternal nutrition, pediatric nutrition, and nutrition research.

What Have Been the Biggest Obstacles You’ve Had to Overcome in Your Journey to Becoming an RD? 

I first considered becoming an RD after my experience in the 2017 Children’s Health Assessment in the Pacific (CHAP) Fellowship through the Northern Marianas College and the University of Hawaii-Manoa. After discovering the University of New England’s Future Education Model MSAN program, I made the decision to take a leap of faith by pursuing my passion for Nutrition.

Finances were an obstacle. With the support of my fíancé and with the savings I had, we covered the costs of tuition and fees out-of-pocket and with loans, taking advantage of any and every opportunity for scholarships and financial aid. The next obstacle was searching for preceptors (mentors). When I was first accepted into the program, there were only three practicing registered dietitians in the Mariana Islands.

The last, and perhaps most significant, obstacle during my experience in this field has been the lack of research and resources specific to the Pacific Islander cultures of the Mariana Islands. As a Chamorro Filipino, little research has been done on the traditional foods of our community, as well as the effects of dietary changes, westernization, and urbanization on the health of Mariana Island residents. Few culturally-competent and culturally-modified resources on the Mariana Island diet exist. This has led to me creating my own culturally-competent materials for patients and clients. This is also why it is a passion of mine to get involved in future research and resource creation in my future career as an Asian Pacific Islander-registered dietitian.

What Is Your Favorite Snack or Go-To Meal?

My favorite go-to meal would have to be ahi tuna poké with a bed of white rice and a side of mixed greens topped with roasted sesame dressing. A favorite Chamorro meal from my childhood would be barbequed hangun (a local reef fish) with grilled breadfruit. I also loved the sinigang (Filipino sour soup) my lola (grandmother) would cook for me as a child–loaded with kangkong (water spinach) and winged beans from her garden.

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