Summer 2016

Work, Learn, Live

Online certificate programs bring new students, new perspectives

By Julie Flaherty

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Illustration: Angie Wang

As a pediatrician in El Paso, Texas, Maria Lourdes Asiain has several patients—particularly teens—who are overweight, obese or diabetic. She often wished she could do more to advise them on diet and exercise. “My medical school and residency didn’t stress nutrition much,” she said.

After about a year of searching for the right way to increase her knowledge, she found what she was looking for: the Nutrition Science for Health Professionals online certificate program offered by the Friedman School.

She was concerned that it might be hard for her to be a student again—it had been 10 years since she had done a research paper, after all—but she was soon engaged by the coursework, which covers everything from clinical scenarios of patients who have chronic conditions to the lowdown on fad diets that patients might ask about.

“I’m surprised that I enjoyed it so much,” she said. “It’s very practical, which is what I looked for, but it’s challenging. Manageable, but challenging.” As a mother of two who works in private practice and does rounds at a hospital, she knew an online course made logistical sense. “I can do it while I’m taking my son to basketball practice or while I’m waiting for a C-section,” she said.

The program has already made a difference in her practice. She now sets aside one day a week to meet with her adolescent patients who have nutritional concerns, and has new expertise to help them.

Working professionals like Asiain have found a unique learning experience through the Friedman School’s various Online Graduate Certificate Programs, says program director Diane McKay, G89, N97, N00.

“It’s a very flexible way for them to advance their knowledge, enhance their skill set, improve their marketability, and improve their ability to administer to their patients,” she said.

At the same time, she says the school has benefited from the virtual presence of its diverse online students, who live around the world and bring a range of ages and experiences to their coursework. “The different perspectives they have on the same subject matter make it particularly enriching for the students and for me, as an instructor,” said McKay, an assistant professor who teaches several of the certificate courses.

The school has benefited from the virtual presence of its diverse online students, who live around the world and bring a range of ages and experiences to their coursework.

Aside from the academic rigor, small class size and access to Tufts faculty, it’s the student interactions that set these programs apart from those at other universities, says Patrick Connell, director of online and blended learning at Tufts.

“We’re creating an environment where students and faculty can interact and communicate both live and asynchronously and spend a semester together experiencing pretty much the same thing that they would experience on campus,” he said.

The school offers five certificate programs, each consisting of three courses that can be completed in one year. Students may also take individual courses or choose from the different programs to meet their needs.

The Right Balance

When Brandon Burrows wanted to continue his education, he gave careful thought to the kind of online program he wanted. Some years back, he had earned his master’s in food science in a rushed eight months, an experience that left him burned out. This time, he wanted to make sure he could balance school, working full time as a research and development manager at a food ingredient company and spending time at home in Virginia with his wife and 1-year-old daughter.

It was only after he enrolled in the Friedman School’s certificate program in Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems that he learned his job would soon require weekly travel and that his wife was pregnant with their second child. Was he still glad he went back to school?

“Absolutely,” he said recently. “It was well worth it.”

On business trips, he used the airplane as his classroom, watching downloaded lectures on his laptop or phone and getting caught up on his reading assignments.

Because he wasn’t sure how applicable it would be, Burrows didn’t mention the program to his supervisors until he was partway through his first semester. But when he did tell them about the kinds of things he was learning, they were enthusiastic, and even offered to reimburse his tuition. Since then, he has helped his company think more comprehensively about its own social, economic and environmental sustainability.

On business trips, he used the airplane as his classroom.

Vanessa Mathews-Hanna works for a nonprofit in Canada that provides community development and disaster response in 35 countries. A colleague pointed her to the Tufts program in Delivery Science in International Nutrition, which lined up exactly with her interests.

“Child health has always been my passion and especially nutrition within that,” said Mathews-Hanna, whose duties have included managing a nutrition program for women and children in Bangladesh. Recently, she has been consulting on the creation of programs aimed at preventing childhood stunting. “I was greatly helped by the knowledge I gained with the international nutrition certificate,” she said.

She appreciated that all her instructors were seasoned professionals in the field and that the readings were very current. When she went to conferences, she was pleased to see that she had read papers by some of the headlining presenters.

“Once I put my daughter to bed, I just worked on the class,” said Mathews-Hanna, who has a 3-year-old daughter and was pregnant with her son while taking the courses. Despite the long days, she found the program motivating. “I appreciated the intellectual break from work that studying provides. It was just energizing.”

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