Featured RDN/NDTR of the Quarter
Sandra S. Witte, PhD, RD
Jordan College of Agricultural Sciences and Technology
California State University, Fresno
Interviewed by Randi Drasin, MS, RDN, CAND Communications Council
Meet Dr. Witte is most likely one of the most decorated dietitians CA Academy has ever featured. She has 41 years of experience as a dietitian in fields ranging from clinical dietitian to professorship to Dietetic Internship Director to lecturer to Department Chair to DPD Director to Dean. She is a Doctor of Philosophy specializing in Nutrition and Food Management. She has been honored with a countless number of awards ranging from The Academy's Recognized Young Dietitian of the Year (1976) to CA Academy's Outstanding Dietetics Educator (1998) to Recognition of Service Award (2000) to Excellence in Education Practice Award (2013) to Jordan College of Agricultural Sciences and Technology Common Threads Award - Honoring Women in Agriculture (2016)... Just to name a few! Her experience is invaluable to future young students and dietitians.
Please tell us about your experience in the field of dietetics. How many years have you had? What is your background and what inspired you to become a dietitian? I took the registration examination in January of 1975. This month marks 41 years as an RD. As the youngest child, only girl, I grew up doing things like learning to sew, cook, knit, and shop. I was a Girl Scout and that exposed me to these activities in addition to learning from my mother and grandmothers. When I got to high school, my favorite classes were chemistry, biology and physiology. So in considering a college major, I identified nutrition as having the science foundation but also connecting to cooking and feeding a family. Once I started down this path, I found that I really loved the field of nutrition and, after learning more about 'dietetics', aimed toward dietetic registration. My path was pretty traditional - undergraduate degree at Cal Poly Pomona, dietetic internship at UC San Francisco, master's degree at Fresno State and doctorate at Oregon State University - in that order.
Did you always know you wanted to be in the "teaching" field? If not, was there a defining moment or event that lead you down that path? Actually my parents and others touted the benefits of being a teacher - compatible with family life, always in demand, summers off, etc. - but I didn't think it was for me when I first started college. It was in my dietetic internship at UC San Francisco that many of my rotation evaluations complimented me on my teaching ability. I still didn't see myself as a teacher until I realized that college teaching was an option - not just K-12! I did complete a California teaching credential (single subject-biology) program but never taught in K-12. It was having the opportunity to be a TA during my master's degree that made me realize this was really my passion. My decision to complete a doctoral program at Oregon State University was so I could just have one job - college teacher - rather than teaching part-time while working full-time in (at the time) a hospital.
You seem to have spent a lot of time involved in The Academy, CA Academy and your district association. Can you share with our readers how you became so involved? How do you feel it impacted you in your career? I like being involved and 'doing' things. Volunteering was (and still is) a way of life for me. I get satisfaction from serving and doing things for others. My first job after my internship was at UC San Francisco and many of the dietitians on staff were active in the local district association. It was just a natural thing to join them and I found I really enjoyed it. When I moved to Southern California and got married and then eventually moved to Clovis, I just continued to volunteer - new place, new people, and new opportunities. The impact this involvement has had is priceless. I have met so many people across the country in our field and learned so much from them. I feel it has benefited me personally to know these people but it has also benefited our students when I can pick up the phone and call someone I know who is a dietitian who might be able to assist them.
What is your role with the American Heart Association? What lead you to this organization? I am a member of the Board of Directors for the American Heart Association/American Stroke Association, Central Valley Division. As a board member, I advocate for AHA publically and at the University. I help with fund-raising events here in the local area. I also bring my own network to the board, which is now an academic network rather than a healthcare one. A member of the AHA/ASA staff heard a presentation I did in the spring of 2016. They reached out to me and invited me to consider the board position. I was surprised that there wasn't already a dietitian on the board and wanted to correct that. I think that the organization's acknowledgement of the role nutrition plays related to both prevention and treatment was important to me in deciding to accept the invitation. My current position at Fresno State is very demanding outside the normal workday so I have to be pretty selective in committing to outside activities.
After receiving so many honors and awards throughout your career, please share with our members an award or honor that is the most memorable? That is really a tough question and probably has a complex answer. I think that the timing of these recognitions is important personally. I have always thought that what I do is not exceptional, but rather just what is expected I should do. So sometimes the recognition has been uncomfortable in that I didn't think I really deserved it. When I was Recognized Young Dietitian of the Year in 1976, I think that really was meaningful to me. I hadn't been registered for very long and it was very humbling to be recognized in that way so early in my career. When I was honored by Common Threads, in spring 2016, I was truly blown away. This award is given to women who make a difference in agriculture and for years I have sat through the event in absolute awe for these women and all that they have done. I am the first woman dean of agriculture at Fresno State and the first Registered Dietitian to be a dean of agriculture here. I have sometimes had to explain myself to farmers and ranchers who don't see the nutrition and agriculture connection. So being recognized at Common Threads, which is so strongly tied to traditional agriculture, made me feel really honored.
Your career seems so full and well-rounded ranging from speaking engagements to contributing to textbooks, Department Dean and Chair, Professor and Dietetic Internship Director. Can you share with us what is the most rewarding part of your career? What are you most passionate about? Again, that is a tough question. I look at my career as a continuum of experiences and growth. I don't think I would be where I am today - my position, skills or knowledge - without doing all of the things I have. I can think of many things learned all the way back to my dietetic internship that I use today as the dean. That goes pretty much for all of the things I've done whether I had a good learning experience or a not-so-good experience (that taught me what not to do next time). In many ways, where I am in the present is the most rewarding. Never did I aspire to be a dean of agriculture. But all the things I did aspire to be as well as the things that came along serendipitously are what prepared me to be the dean. This position is very rewarding because you do have the authority to make decisions to get things done. It's even more rewarding because of the exhilaration I get every year from being with 3,500 FFA kids who are on campus for field days finals or 100 FHA HERO kids on campus for leadership training or 400 of our own Jordan College students at their graduation ceremony when they walk across stage and I can shake their hand. It makes everything I have done in food and agriculture come together for me and gives me great faith in the future.
What is the single most important piece of advice you can give to new RDNs and students? It's not the destination that is important, but the journey. Don't focus on the speed with which you are moving but rather on all there is to see and do around you. Don't focus on how much money you make but rather on what you can get out of the experience other than money. Don't focus on how long you have to stay but rather on what all the opportunities are that you have while you are there. By focusing on the journey, you are open to so much more that this profession and life have to offer and how you can make a difference.
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