Newswise — An extreme athlete who has biked across the country and competed in national weightlifting meets, Sabrina Goshen likes a challenge.  

That’s what drew her to a rigorous graduate nutrition degree program at Rutgers School of Health Professions that is the first of its kind in the nation.   

"I certainly felt like a trailblazer as I moved through this program," said Goshen, who graduated Monday from the program with a Master of Science in Clinical Nutrition and eligibility to take the credentialing exam to become a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist. “I would be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous about being the guinea pig.”   

Sixteen months after they began, Goshen and 19 others will be the first graduates of the new Entry-Level M.S. in Clinical Nutrition program, a future education model designed to meet changing requirements calling for a master’s degree by 2024 for registered dietitian nutritionists. 

Currently, students must get a bachelor’s degree in nutrition and dietetics from an accredited school, then complete an accredited 1,200-hour dietetic internship or accredited bachelor’s or master’s level coordinated program.  

“When these students graduate, we believe they are going to function at a higher level of practice and professionalism than was previously possible. They will be better prepared to be critical thinkers and clinicians who will perform evidence-based practice,” said Jennifer A. Tomesko, program director, and an assistant professor at Rutgers School of Health Professions. 

The need for nutritionists and dietitians continues to grow, with the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics predicting growth of 11% in the industry through 2028 – faster than average for all professions.

Rutgers School of Health Professions is the first school in the country to pilot the new degree program. Lauri Wright, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, noted that Rutgers School of Health Professions is a pioneer in the field of nutrition and dietetics, launching the nation’s first Doctorate of Clinical Nutrition program in 2003. 

Wright said the future education model was developed to meet the demands of next-generation practitioners, with an emphasis on leadership, research and higher-order thinking skills such as how to negotiate with a physician on a patient’s nutritional care.   

It is competency-based rather than hours-based – students are evaluated on whether they master skills and meet program requirements rather than on the number of hours put in.  

The new model combines didactic and experiential learning – in addition to her classroom work, Goshen completed clerkships at the VA hospital in Indianapolis, while another student, Paula Caetano, did her clerkships at University Hospital in Newark.   

“In most other health professions, you learn in the classroom and then go into clinicals and apply what you learned right away,” Wright said. “It really is a better way to learn.” 

Caetano couldn’t be happier with the program. Her bachelor’s degree in nutrition from her native Brazil did not meet eligibility requirements, so she would have needed a second bachelor’s degree and an internship had she taken the traditional route to becoming an RDN. Now, she graduates with a master’s degree and eligibility to take the RDN exam.

“This was unbelievable for me. The program was shorter and more affordable compared to other options,” said Caetano. “It was 16 months of very hard work, but it was a year of great accomplishment.”

Fluent in English, Portuguese and Spanish, she wants to practice preventive nutrition in a diverse community. 

Goshen said the program prepared her to individualize her approach while working with veterans with malnutrition. When a combat veteran who was traumatized was unwilling to stop his drug use, she focused on how to get him nutrients during times when he was sober.    

“How to optimize nutrition when not using isn’t something you find in a textbook. I was forced to find a way to think out of the box," said Goshen, who had planned to work with athletes but has altered her career path to help veterans.  

Goshen often fields questions from professors, program directors, dietitians and potential students eager to know what the new road to becoming a registered dietitian nutritionist is really like. 

It's hard, but worth it, she said. 

“The Rutgers School of Health Professions program puts students ahead of the game, because they will grasp more challenging concepts than their peers who are still on the older track. But it is not one they can expect to skate through. If they put in the work, they will reap the benefits, as this program really does set its students up to succeed and to become top-notch entry-level dietitians.” 

Register for reporter access to contact details