What It Means to be a Preceptor

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Kristen is pictured here with Virginia Tech dietetic interns Julia Knopp and Kirby Moir at the 2014 VAND Legislative Day

Over the past 4 years as a dietitian, I have had the opportunity to serve as a preceptor for students and dietetic interns in a variety of capacities. I remember my first experience hosting a student from our local Virginia Tech dietetic internship clearly because I was terrified! I had thoughts along the lines of “What if this intern knows more than me? What if she thinks I’m boring? How will I manage my time and get all of my work done?” Thankfully my fears turned out to be unfounded — I had a wonderful experience hosting my first intern and enjoyed it so much I immediately requested more to be sent my way.

As an undergraduate student and dietetic intern, I always had a deep appreciation for the faculty members that delivered my education and the dietitians in various settings that patiently mentored me through the internship process. Each of these individuals played a vital role in shaping me into the professional I am today and inspiring me to play an active role in the profession to ensure its longevity. Now as a practicing dietitian, my love for the profession overflows in a way that I cannot help but want to share it with others, and therefore I openly welcome the opportunity to mentor students and interns.

Serving as a preceptor is an investment. It takes time and commitment to help an intern work through complex nutritional cases, learn lessons of professional conduct, navigate the management of conflict and successfully advocate for themselves as future dietitians. It requires intention, especially when aiming to role model lessons learned in the classroom or lessons that are best learned through vicarious experiences. As a preceptor, I am responsible for modeling many of the aspects of being a dietitian that simply cannot be learned through a textbook. For example, “How should I build rapport with patients, respond to their emotions, convey empathy, or motivate them to change their behaviors?” or “What is the best manner to professionally navigate difficult situations with patients or staff?” or “How can I manage time and maintain a balance between my professional and personal life?”

Serving as a preceptor pushes me outside my comfort zone. It pushes me to be more organized, both in how I develop my thoughts in communicating my plan of care but also in the identification of resources for students to reference and utilize. It pushes me to better manage my time while balancing professional duties, time with patients and time mentoring my student. It has been vital in the development of my communication skills especially in modeling the importance of interdisciplinary teamwork and in providing constructive feedback to facilitate student learning.

Being a preceptor helps me to “stay on top of my game,” especially in regards to the latest practice and evidence-based guidelines within my specific area of practice. I also get to learn from my students and in turn, assist them in integrating that knowledge and develop the skills required to think on their feet, problem solve, and become confident, competent practitioners. Working with students provides me with a platform in which to bounce off ideas, thoughts regarding a plan of care or to discuss pertinent issues within the profession.

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Kristen had fun making smoothies for long-term care residents with student Brittni Woolwine, now a graduate of the Virginia Tech DPD program.

Being a preceptor allows me to serve more confidently as a dietitian, knowing that I am a leader, serving as a role model for the future of the profession. It has undoubtedly increased my overall satisfaction as a dietitian while consistently motivating me to put my best foot forward in representing the profession. I am thankful for the opportunity to guide and facilitate the learning of students, teach critical thinking, professionalism, and culture competence and confidence in their skills and knowledge. While I will forever be in gratitude to the many dietitians that molded me into the professional I am today, it’s my pleasure to be able to return the favor in encouraging, mentoring and teaching the dietitians of tomorrow.

If you’re interested in becoming a preceptor and unsure about taking that first step, all I can say is you’ll never know until you try! Be sure to check out CDR’s FREE Dietetics Preceptor Learning Module at: http://www.cdrcampus.com/, which is full of tools and advice to equip you in having a positive and successful preceptor-intern relationship and outcome.

Kristen Chang

Kristen Chang, MS, RDN, CSSD is the current Co-Chair of Professional Education for VAND. She is an adjunct instructor for Virginia Tech and Radford University and the owner of the nutrition private practice, Real Food For Fuel, LLC, with an emphasis on sports nutrition. She is thankful for the unique position in which she is able to teach dietetic students and serve as a preceptor to both students and interns.