A Partnership Founded on Education

For ASPHN members Marsha Spence, PhD, MPH, RDN, LDN and Cheryl Hill, MS-MPH, RDN, LDN, The University of Tennessee, Knoxville (UT) has played an instrumental role in their working relationship and friendship.

Their paths first crossed in 2004 when Hill was pursuing a dual degree and Spence was finishing her PhD. Over a decade later, Hill was accepted into an emerging nutrition leaders program, for which Spence was a faculty member. Today, their offices are a mere five minutes apart, and Spence’s students assist Hill’s health department division with a nutrition initiative Hill spearheads for Knox County.

An Educational Opportunity for Emerging Nutrition Leaders

Both women view the Emerging Nutrition Leaders in Maternal & Child Health (MCH) Institute (ENL) as a notable turning point in their careers.

Spence was working as the co-director of the MCH Nutrition Leadership Program at UT when she and other MCH Nutrition Leadership Program faculty from the University of Alabama, Birmingham, the University of Minnesota, and Baylor College of Medicine began to develop the curriculum for the Institute.

“Results from a USDA study had revealed that many registered dietitians (RDs) working in MCH at the state level would soon be retiring,” explains Spence. “We were concerned there wouldn’t be enough leaders to take their place. That was the catalyst that launched the Institute.”

The program is based on the principles of MCH Navigator’s 5-Minute MCH, and it’s designed to increase participants’ MCH leadership competencies. Assessments are performed before and after completing the training to determine the students’ advancement in their leadership skills. Spence reports that since the Institute’s inception, every cohort has measured positive results.

The Institute’s ideal candidates are those with two to ten years’ experience in community/public health nutrition who have an interest in pursuing their leadership potential. “Cheryl [Hill] was a perfect candidate for the program,” recalls Spence.

Hill learned about the Institute after she had transitioned from a career in long-term care to one in public health nutrition. After receiving a promotion to a management position, she applied and was admitted into the Institute’s class of 2015-2016.

An Outstanding Learning Experience

“There were so many take-aways from the Institute,” recalls Hill. “For one, I didn’t know about ASPHN before enrolling in the class. The chance to go to ASPHN’s Annual Meeting and meet face-to-face with other participants was really valuable,” she adds.

Indeed, the meeting held by the Institute at ASPHN’s Annual Meeting is their only in-person gathering of the year. Participants are asked to stay for the duration of the association’s event, giving them an opportunity to hear the speakers, meet other attendees, and learn about leadership opportunities with the association.

Hill also found working with Margaret Tate, a career coach who is trained in StrengthsFinder 2.0, to be eye-opening. “Margaret led us through the StrengthsFinder assessment and I learned which qualities make me a good leader,” she says.

Applying the Knowledge in the Workplace

As the program manager of the Healthy Weight Program for Knox County’s Health Department, Hill relies on those strengths to lead her team. She also relies on her team members’ individual strengths to make their program successful.

“It’s a different way of thinking,” says Hill. “Using the StrengthsFinder’s approach, I match the assignment to the team member who I think will be most successful. Our team is stronger than ever. We work more efficiently and provide better service to our community because we’re tapping into everyone’s strengths.”

Improving and protecting the health of the public is central, not just to Hill’s program, but to the Knox County Health Department’s mission. KCHD is currently the only local health department in the state that is accredited. The initiatives Hill and her team are executing are crucial to that designation.

A Partnership For Good

Hill’s team is also running a transformative community program called N.E.A.T., (Nutrition Education Activity Training), which teaches and promotes healthy eating behaviors among youth in Knox County. Developed to combat childhood obesity, the initiative now reaches more than 1,000 children in afterschool sites.

N.E.A.T. has become yet another touchstone for Hill and Spence thanks to the partnership between the Knox County Health Department and the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Knox County serves as an academic health department, affording UT’s students the benefit of a practice-based curriculum where they can work in the community.

Hill is a field advisor for Spence’s graduate students, helping them attain skills in assessment, program planning, implementation, and evaluation. The students have played an integral role in the success of the N.E.A.T. program and the N.E.A.T. Approved designation, which requires afterschool providers to incorporate environmental policy changes at their sites that encourage healthy eating and physical activity. UT students are also eligible to become N.E.A.T. educators, teaching children about nutrition and wellness.

“I sometimes see Cheryl more than my own colleagues at the university,” chuckles Spence. Thanks to programs like N.E.A.T., the two friends are able to work collaboratively in order to benefit the population of Knox County as well as educate future public health professionals.

“Education and a love of learning are at the heart of our careers,” says Spence. “Sharing knowledge is a practice that benefits everyone,” adds Hill.

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