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Department of Nutrition’s First Pre-College Program to Support Knoxville High Schoolers Interested in Food, Nutrition, and Agriculture Careers


By Macy Roberts, CEHHS Student Reporter, Class of 2024

Beginning in Summer 2023, the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, is launching a pre-college program in the College of Education, Health and Human Sciences’ Nutrition Department. The program has been branded “Learn, Grow, Lead: Have a Vol Experience,” with its purpose being to grow the number and diversity of students pursuing studies in food, nutrition and agriculture after high school.

Graphical image with words learn grow lead, have a Vol experience .The opportunity to participate in the program is offered to rising 10th, 11th, and 12th graders in the Knoxville area with priority given to underrepresented students hailing from Knox County’s three Flagship high schools: Austin-East, Central, and Fulton. Two sessions will be offered—one in June and the other in July—and in an effort to eliminate financial barriers, there will be no cost to participate in the program.

Students will spend their first day in the program on UT’s campus to get a feel for the college experience, engage in team building exercises and learn about the city of Knoxville’s food and agriculture scene. Then, they will spend most of the two weeks at one of four community sites selected by the Department of Nutrition: Beardsley Community Farm, Nourish Knoxville, Second Harvest Food Bank or UT Extension.

At their community sites, students will engage in day-to-day tasks regularly performed at their sites, as well as develop leadership projects with the help of site supervisors and current UT Nutrition students.

Photo of Melissa Hensen-Petrick, a fair complexion female with glasses and grey hair. Melissa is smiling in the photograph.

Melissa Hansen-Petrik

“Day to day operations could include a number of things such as assisting Extension Agents, planting or harvesting on the farm, preparing food for distribution from the food bank or helping out at farmers’ markets,” said Melissa Hansen-Petrik, a clinical associate professor and program director in the Nutrition Department.

As far as the leadership projects go, Hansen-Petrik says they could vary across the different community sites, but each will be related to cultural foodways and/or food security in some way.

For instance, the projects could include developing recipe cards, creating budget-friendly meal plans, implementing taste testing programs, forming nutrition education activities and more initiatives that can be utilized by the community sites on a regular basis.

On the last day of the program, students will return to UT campus with field notes, photos and other materials they collected to present a brief presentation on their leadership projects. Students will also hear from representatives from Undergraduate Admissions, the Center for Career Development and Academic Exploration and the Nutrition Department to give them an idea of what their college career could look like at UT.

Participants will be admitted as non-degree seeking students, so those who complete the program will have the option to include two college credits on their transcript. Students who finish the program will also have the opportunity to enroll in an online Introductory Nutrition course, thereby earning three additional credit hours at UT for free while still in high school.

The “Learn, Grow, Lead: Have a Vol Experience” program is supported for Summer 2023 and Summer 2024 by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, Secondary Education, Two-Year Postsecondary Education and Agriculture in the K-12 Classroom Challenge Grants Program. Many in the College of Education, Health and Human Sciences already had connections with Knox County Schools, so the Nutrition Department jumped at the opportunity to work together to create their new program.

“Overall, it was a hectic process with a lot of meetings and a lot of planning, coordinating, writing and approvals within the space of a few weeks from mid-February to the first week of April in 2022,” Hansen-Petrik said. “It was a pleasant surprise to receive notification of the grant award in June – and then the real work began to get all the pieces in place!”