Stacey Snelling, PhD, MS, BS, RDN
Chair, Department of Health Studies, American University
Stacey Snelling grew up in Meriden, Connecticut in the 60’s in a household that was typical of the time. The women’s movement was strong and starting to make inroads for women and girls, but households were still organized around a working father, a mother homemaker and children weren’t the center of attention.
Attention to the role food and physical activity had on health were just starting to come to people’s attention with the rise in local food Coops, homemade yogurt (which Stacey experimented with) and Jack LaLanne fitness classes on TV. The 5th of 6 children, Dr. Snelling’s parents instilled a strong work ethic, and insisted all their children attend college, but they weren’t particularly attuned to health except for her father who fastidiously cared for his chronic disease. The country was changing in ways that would affect Dr. Snelling and her path to a career in nutrition and health promotion.
Girls didn’t have equal access to sports growing up until movements for civil rights and equal opportunities wracked the country in part due to women’s organizations like the National Organization for Women and the Division for Girls and Women in Sport that led to Title IX of the Education Act of 1967 and more opportunities for girls and women to compete in sports. But for Dr. Snelling, though she was interested in physical activity, there was only swimming and tennis as choices for girls at school.
Several other events occurred in those early years to channel her toward a career in nutrition. Two older sisters entered health fields, nursing and physician assistant, and in 1979 Dr. Snelling ran the Marine Corp Marathon. She liked how it felt to be in shape and when she went to the University of Connecticut, she enrolled in the Coordinated Program in Dietetics, completing all the requirements to become a Registered Dietitian with the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (then called the American Dietetics Association).
A Series of Jobs
Her first job took her to Upstate Medical Center in Syracuse, NY working with inpatient diabetics. She knew very quickly she didn’t like it and was more interested in helping people prevent their illness, not treat them after they were already ill. She was able to test her interest and values by moving to the outpatient clinic where she could at least counsel people on healthy lifestyles.
Sure clinical nutrition was the wrong focus, she enrolled in American University’s Health Promotion Master’s program and was hired to work on a big research contract with the Pentagon where she educated civilians and military personnel on smoking cessation, exercise and nutrition. She was also teaching and was offered an assistant professorship launching her on an academic career that included education and research. A benefit of AU employment included free tuition, so why not take advantage? She finished her PhD between 1987 –1990 and gave her oral defense 2 days before her 2nd child was born.
Another big shift came when she carved out her niche at American University with the Nutrition Education Certificate program in the mid-2000s which later developed into an online master’s program in Nutrition Education. These programs aligned with her research agenda on nutrition education and health disparities. Since then she has been the dean of a school, chair of a department, chair of many committees, received innumerable grants and been widely published. In the past six years, since the master’s program was launched, over 170 students have graduated, expanding the opportunities for people more interested in food systems, education and behavior change than food service and clinical dietetics.
Meanwhile, Dr. Snelling expanded her family to three children and balanced her life as best she could. As an academic, she had some flexibility and control of her schedule, and her husband’s career was a bit less demanding. In order to have quality time with her children, she sacrificed personal time and activities.
“As a society, until we value working parents/moms and provide them with more support, try to negotiate a job that you can do at 80% so you have more time for yourself and family.”
With her children well along in their own careers now, she continues her work as a full tenured professor and Chair of the Department of Health Studies. Her goal for the next part of her career is to launch a Center of Health Equity at American University to support collaborative efforts to help marginalized populations.
Advice for Others
And the future of nutrition education? She thinks most work will be based locally with a focus on social justice issues. “Food is sustenance and we need it to be available to everyone equally. Local advocates and nonprofits will be on the front lines. Registered Dietitians don’t do this work, it is not part of their training.”
She thinks the 21st century skills needed for people entering the field of nutrition education mirror the skills and interests embodied by her students such as grass roots advocacy, community organization, entrepreneurship, skills in behavior change and food systems, innovation, and creativity.
“Always follow your passion. You have lots of years to work. The soft skills we have a hard time teaching will redefine the landscape of how we access nutrition and food. Be accepting of different approaches.”Stacey Snelling