Working for the Best Kept Secret

With summer quickly approaching, I was still unsure what I was going to do for the next three months. Understanding the importance of gaining real world experience in my field of study, I applied to a number of nutrition related internships throughout the semester. I was hoping to find that “perfect fit.” Alas almost all of the programs either had chosen their summer interns or were deemed too impractical for me to commit to (i.e. traveling to DC). I was in a tight spot… But the last week of school changed that for me; I received an email regarding a “Paid Summer Internship” with the UConn Extension Department. I always knew Extension existed but wasn’t really aware of its significance. I did some research, decided to apply, and within a few weeks was asked to join their team. Still with limited knowledge of what Extension did or was, I committed to the summer internship.

Left to Right: Aaron Plotke, Linda Castro, Stacey Sterns, and Rineicha Otero posing with Lever and Smith at the Centennial Dinner.

As I learned more about what is considered the “state’s best-kept secret,” I was amazed at what I found. Extension is compromised of a vast network of outreach programming across every state in the U.S. including our own state of Connecticut. With the passing of the Smith-Lever Act in the early 1900’s, each state’s “Land Grant Universities” were tasked to run their own Extension programs. Then, as now, the objective is to empower communities with the knowledge and expertise of major research universities in the areas of food, health and sustainability. UConn is Connecticut’s Land Grant University with an Extension program that has over 282 active initiatives. Strong local ties have been established with communities across the state, with every county having a dedicated Extension office.

During my internship I worked with the New Haven County Extension Office and learned about the many programs offered there. I felt a sense of belonging and inclusiveness. Everyone was genuinely interested in teaching me about their various projects; even when I wasn’t directly working with them, they were happy to take the time to meet with me. Throughout my internship I worked with the Expanded Food Nutrition Education Program (EFNEP) and the Food Safety Program. However, my main focus was The Connecticut Fitness and Nutrition Clubs in Motion (CT Fans IM), a 4-H club around teaching 3rd and 4th grade school children nutrition, fitness and gardening. With the goal of obesity alleviation through sustainable interventions, the program works in many towns throughout Connecticut. This summer we worked in the towns of Meriden and Danbury, myself focusing on the latter. In addition to addressing obesity rates, all 4-H clubs aim to provide professional development and empowerment for its club members. High school students from Danbury and Meriden were recruited by Extension Specialists to take on the task of teaching nutrition, fitness, and gardening lessons for 3rd and 4th graders. Not only is the program addressing one of the biggest health issues of our time, but is also giving at risk high schoolers job experience and mentorship throughout the process. I was thrilled to be a part of such a program.Aaronpic2_4Hfans

As an intern my role was to help “teach the teachers.” I trained the high school students to design and carry out their own nutrition / fitness curriculum while also focusing on their personal and professional development. From running group reflections to helping teach the material, I felt a part of what was a very dynamic program. One of the best realizations I had during my internship was how important my UConn experience was to my success. A key aspect of an internship is applying ones coursework (and extracurricular activities) to the “real world.” I can wholeheartedly say I did that with Extension. My major related classes proved to be essential when helping to design and implement nutrition and fitness curricula. Even the classes I took as electives, like EDLR 3263, a class on the art of group facilitation, were some of the most important tools I had for the summer. I felt my hard work, like taking those extra classes, was paying off. I was able to provide a wealth of experiences from UConn that came to fruition at Extension.

As I reflect on my time with Extension, I have nothing but good things to say. I met an amazing group of people, all working for the betterment of our communities. While I say I was able to contribute so much, I also learned a lot about myself and what I want my potential career path to look like. As the saying goes “Extension ties research to real life,” interning with Extension brought my future aspirations to real life.