Ashley Gilles understood the irony of her dinner choice on April 1, 2012. All she wanted was a burger and beer, and a reason to take her mind off of 6 p.m. So she and her roommates drove to Smash Burger. That’s healthy, Ashley thought; while waiting to hear about my dietetics internship I’m eating at Smash Burger. She ordered herself a Leinenkugel’s Honey Weiss  – a little central nervous system depressant, no big deal – and sat down at the table. The girls wolfed down their meal, chatting to keep Ashley distracted, but at 6:15 p.m. she couldn’t take it anymore. It was match day. The day all dietetics students find out where – and if – they will be placed for an all-important internship after graduation.

“We have to leave right now, I can’t do this,” she said. “We have to leave.”

Each year, only 50 percent of applicants for accredited internships through the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics are offered one. Considering that the Wall Street Journal listed dietitian as the 17th best job in the nation for 2012, it’s no shocker that so many people covet these positions. Rising awareness due to Michelle Obama’s nutrition campaign, along with growing diet-related health issues, causes an increased demand for people who, like Ashley, know their food science. But to become a registered dietitian, three things are required: complete an undergraduate degree at an accredited university, complete an internship through an accredited program, and take the RD exam. So far for Ashley: zero down, three to go.

* * *

At age 13, Ashley was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. Her body wasn’t producing the right amount of insulin on its own, and she was admitted to the hospital. The news devastated her self-esteem; no one will like me, she thought, I’m ugly, she thought, I will never be able to do anything with my life, she thought. She spiraled into depression and struggled with it throughout junior high. But her nurse, a young, beautiful woman, admitted to Ashley that she was also a diabetic. Her perspective changed, and she decided she wanted to help kids with diabetes one day, too. She knew throughout high school that she would study dietetics.

And she did. After four years of rigorous nutrition classes at Concordia College – paying careful attention to grades, developing leadership skills, working long clinical hours at the Hennepin County Medical Center – Ashley submitted her application to the electronic national pool from which interns are selected to fill dietetics positions at medical centers, dietary facilities, and colleges around the country. I deserve this, she thought, Smash Burger resting uneasy in her stomach as she logged in to the online portfolio. She had applied to Rush University in Chicago as her first choice, and all she wanted was for them to select her, too. Without an internship, Ashley or any dietetics major cannot become a Registered Dietitian.

At her computer, her hands shook, and she didn’t want to look; what she would see on the screen would determine the course of her life after graduation in four weeks. Back in Ashley’s freshman year, Betty Larson, the director of Concordia’s nutrition and dietetics program, told her that she might consider changing her goals and switching to track two. That meant that, because of some of Ashley’s early grades, she might not make the internship cut. For most programs, a 3.0 GPA is required to even apply, but most accepted applicants have at least a 3.5. A switch to track two would mean Ashley wouldn’t become an RD but could do other jobs in the dietetics industry, including food service or Women, Infants and Children food programs. She didn’t want to compromise her goal of working with diabetic kids, and so she got motivated.

She developed leadership skills to set herself apart, working with the Campus Entertainment Commission to plan health and wellness events for students. She raised her grades, exiting organic chemistry and anatomy with top grades. She gained professional experience at the Hennepin medical center. Her hard work and fiery spirit earned Ashley the 2012 “Outstanding Senior Award” from the Fargo-Moorhead Dietetic Association. But like everybody else who did their best to qualify themselves, she was stuck, waiting, with a 50-percent chance.

Loading…I deserve this, she thought. Loading…please. ZERO MATCHES.

Shock, initially, then devastation. “I need to calm down,” she said aloud to her roommates. “I need to call Betty.”

So she took a breath, and dialed.

* * *

Betty always goes to the office on match night. Prepared for the worst, hoping for the best, she waits in her second-floor corner office with a list of second options in case any of her “daughters” call. Over the course of four years, Betty has each dietetics student in class at least three or four times. They build relationships, become close. When the phone rang just before 7 p.m., she could tell by the tone in Ashley’s voice.

“We’ll find one,” Betty said, reassuring. “There will be someone who declines an offer, someone who wants a Concordia graduate. We’ll find one.”

Ashley sobbed, hung up, and had cried herself to sleep by 8 p.m.

In the morning, they would start searching for programs that had openings. It’s a complicated process. For a match to be made, two things have to happen.

First, the student must submit her application to a school and list them as one of her top choices, and second, the school must chose to select the student. No interviews are involved. For most programs, hundreds of applications pour in for fewer than 15 spots. If a student lists a school as her third choice, and that school wants her, too, then she’s matched. But if her first choice school offers her a position, and she accepts, then there is an opening at the third choice school for someone else.

Betty received an email on Wednesday from the program coordinator at McNeese State University in Lake Charles, La. notifying her of an opening in their combined internship and master’s program. Betty thought Ashley might be a fit. Ashley hadn’t listed McNeese as an option because she didn’t think the master’s degree route was one she wanted to take.

“Think about it,” Betty said. “Think about if this is somewhere you want to go. Talk to your parents. And then get back to me.”

“I’ll take it,” Ashley said, thrilled to have somewhere to go after graduation. But Betty, who knows of students who weren’t accepted into dietetics intern programs but then applied for medical school and were accepted, needed Ashley to discern if McNeese was a good fit before taking it. If a student enters a program, and does not finish, that could give the undergraduate institution a bad reputation.

“Think about it,” Betty said.

* * *

In August, Ashley will move to Louisiana just days before her 22nd birthday. From her class of 10 Concordia dietetics majors, she will be one of two to begin a master’s program. She will join nine other students at McNeese, most from La., as they study clinical and community nutrition, with a heavy focus on diabetes. When her 18 months at McNeese are finished, Ashley will be eligible to take the RD exam. She couldn’t have planned it better. And the thing is, she didn’t. In Concordia’s campus center only two weeks before graduating, Ashley’s hazel eyes light up as she talks about it.

“It’s not what I expected, but wow,” she said, “I’m excited.”

Stephanie Barnhart

Steph Barnhart, 2013, is a multimedia journalism and public relations major at Concordia College. She has been a contributing writer, staff writer, and the news editor for The Concordian. Steph is an optimistic vegetarian who loves sustainability blogs, green tea, and talking. Follow her on Twitter at @stephbarnhart.

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