As Cindy Swann, associate professor and director of PLNU’s Didactic Program in Dietetics, recaps her academic and professional journey, she recognizes the unorthodox nature of it all. Initially drawn to the field of nutrition in high school, she could have never foreseen how pursuing that interest — or agreeing to a cycling expedition — would impact her life so greatly and propel her into the career she has now.
After graduating with a nutrition degree from State University College in Buffalo, N.Y., Swann embarked on a cross-country bike trip at the request of a friend. This 10-week trip landed her in San Diego, where she decided — on not much more than a whim — to stay for a while. She enrolled at San Diego State University to pursue her master’s in nutritional sciences and went on to complete requirements to become a registered dietitian.
“Anyone can call themselves a nutritionist, but in order to take a position involving any sort of medical or clinical work, you have to be a registered dietitian, which means having a degree and passing an exam; that’s why I decided to continue my education,” said Swann.
Upon completion of the program, she was asked by one of her graduate professors to lend a hand in the department, and upon agreeing, she was assigned three classes to teach — no textbooks, no syllabi, no teaching experience. Not only did she end up staying on as a faculty member for 13 years, Swann also went on to spearhead the department’s internship program before deciding to put her own education into practice as an outpatient counselor with Scripps. There, she earned a certification as a diabetes educator, allowing her to help patients diagnosed with diabetes to navigate the specialized needs of their disease. While she missed teaching and interacting with students, she found this work fulfilled her in a different way.
“I really liked transitioning into counseling, having one-on-one time with each patient, and helping them create better lifestyles,” she said.
In 2002, Swann was given the opportunity to combine her two interests when she was approached by Kay Wilder, PLNU professor emeritus, who asked her to come on as an adjunct professor in the Department of Family & Consumer Sciences at PLNU. Only on campus part time, she was still able to see her patients at Scripps three days per week. That is, until she helped PLNU receive accreditation for its dietetics program in 2005 and was asked to come on full time as the director.
“It’s so rewarding to help students figure out what they’re passionate about and then watch them succeed.”
As director, Swann is responsible for all outcomes and assessments for students, making sure courses align with competencies, keeping program statistics (such as how many students graduate, get internships, or pass the exam to become a registered dietitian), and soliciting feedback from alumni and internship supervisors about the program.
Even with this increased workload, Swann refused to give up counseling altogether, working out a schedule that still allows her to see her patients once a week as an inpatient diabetes educator. And though going between the two roles can be hectic at times, she wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I’ve been doing both counseling and teaching so long, and the two roles mesh so well, that it would be hard to think about giving one of them up,” she said. “When you teach full time, you run the risk of losing some of those skills you hone when you’re in practice as a counselor. I want to keep my teaching relevant by being able to pull from present-day examples of patients I see, and I think my students appreciate that.”
Swann’s contributions to the field extend beyond the classroom and hospital. This year, she and the rest of the dietetics program will be participating in a research project funded by the USDA to improve the health of college students. Chosen as an intervention school, PLNU will be monitoring student choices regarding food and sustainability and then conducting activities throughout the year to modify behaviors. Additionally, Swann will be preparing for a site visit in 2018 by the Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND), which will include conversations with faculty and students to make sure all competencies are being addressed. Amidst these involvements, as well as her many other responsibilities, Swann’s reward in her work remains very simple.
“The best part of what I do is receiving an email from a student saying ‘thank you,’” said Swann. “It’s also really fun to watch that same student become my colleague or even my boss. It’s so rewarding to help students figure out what they’re passionate about and then watch them succeed.”
Just as uncomplicated as what encourages Swann is what she hopes her students leave with at the end of the program.
“I want them to walk away with self-confidence, recognizing they know more than they think they do,” she said. “I also want them to recognize that true success is all in how you treat people and how ethical you are in your practice. I do my best to lead by example, and I hope both my students and my patients have been able to see my values and my faith come into play by the way I interact with them.”
Looking back, Swann can certainly see how unusual the beginning of her story is. But for as random as it seemed at the time, her ever-increasing credentials in the field of dietetics, as well as her passion for counseling and teaching, suggest she was on the right path all along — a path she looks forward to continue exploring.