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When a path takes you on an unexpected ride

Nutrition sciences students with Coco Ellis

August 4, 2017

Corinne “Coco” Ellis’ path has been a winding one.  She began her academic career at Clemson University as a marketing major, but eight years and a few twists and turns later, Ellis found herself as a master’s student at Drexel in a wildly different field: Nutrition.

It was while working at her college internships, one in non-profit marketing and another in event planning, that Ellis realized she was feeling unfulfilled by her chosen profession. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in marketing, she did some soul searching and decided to apply for Teach for America. She was placed as a seventh and eighth grade science teacher at Martin Luther King Middle School in Charlotte, North Carolina

The school is located in the inner city and 99 percent of the students received reduced price or free lunches. Many relied on school to get most of their meals for the day and supplemented with junk food.  “They would get to me last period of the day and just be completely exhausted—or come after lunch and be bouncing off the walls. Nutrition was always something that I was really interested in, so I thought there's got to be some sort of connection between what they're eating and their performance in my classroom,” she said. This inspired Ellis to bring in what she called “brain booster snacks” such as bananas and peanut butter or whole grain crackers which the students ended up loving. She realized this was the aspect of her Teach for America experience she was more passionate about: health, wellness and nutrition. 

After two years in Charlotte, Ellis relocated to Philadelphia. She decided to explore her newfound passion for health and wellness and found a job with the YMCA doing youth development. “I wanted to get my foot in the door on the wellness side and focus on health promotion in a community setting. I started as a wellness coach and worked with YMCA members on achieving health goals, mostly fitness related. During my time there, I ended up getting my group exercise and personal trainer certifications, but I just kept coming back to the food.”

At this point, Ellis realized that to pursue a job in nutrition, she’d have to go back to school. Because her undergraduate degree was in marketing, she had to complete several prerequisite science courses before she could apply.

Ellis was drawn to Drexel’s nutrition program because of two faculty members in particular.

“While working at the YMCA, I had started volunteering with Greener Partners, an organization dedicated to healthier communities through food, farms and education. At the time, they were one of the partners on the Healthy Futures program. At a conference, my supervisor, Helen Nadel, introduced me to Stella Volpe, PhD. I was struck by how she exuded positivity and energy! 

“Then, during my research, I came across the Center for Nutrition and Performance (CNP). I’m a lifelong athlete, and at the time I was just starting to train in powerlifting. I was interested in how nutrition played a role in my performance, so I thought maybe I would like to do something in sports nutrition. I reached out to CNP director, Nyree Dardarian, RD. I quickly realized that as a student, to get the experiences she was talking about—ones I wouldn’t find anywhere else, I’d have to apply to Drexel!” That’s not to say she was unimpressed by the rest of the nutrition sciences faculty. “The biggest asset Drexel has is its professors. They are brilliant. You read their bios and think ‘Why are you spending your time teaching us? You could be doing so many other really awesome things, but you’re here taking your time to teach us.’ They are wonderful,” she said.

Ellis began the accelerated master’s program in January 2016. She was hired as an intern at the Drexel Recreation Center for Student Health, Fitness and Wellness, where she developed and ran on campus programming for Drexel students such as a “Scale Smash” for National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) Week and a “Name That Ingredient” challenge for National Nutrition Month. Additionally, she worked as a performance nutrition assistant for CNP. During the 2016-2017 season, she served as the nutrition liaison for men’s and women’s basketball. “I worked with sports RD and Drexel alum, Andrea Irvine, to create the meal plans for when they traveled and did education sessions with them. I also worked with the rowing team and men’s soccer as well. This summer, I’m continuing to work with Professor Dardarian and supporting some of our professional sports teams, like the Philadelphia Union,” she explained.

A telltale sign that CNP is great for a resume—all five nutrition graduate students working there were accepted into their top choice dietetic internships, Ellis was matched at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. Over the course of 11 months, Ellis will rotate through different areas of the hospital. “A large portion of my hours will focus on clinical nutrition. In addition, I will also spend four weeks in food service learning about the managerial side of dietetics and another four weeks will be spent in a community setting like a soup kitchen or WIC. Lastly, there are two weeks of electives. There is an eating disorder treatment program outside Boston that’s specifically designed for athletes, so I hope to do a week there. Then, possibly a week back at Drexel doing more sports nutrition,” she said. The internship is like a residency; when the interns aren’t shadowing someone, they’ll have a real patient case load.

Ellis recently completed the 18-month accelerated master’s program and graduated in June, but what she’s most excited for this summer is her upcoming trip to Taiwan. She will be serving as a nutrition intern, along with three other Drexel students, at the World University Games, which is like the Olympics for college athletes. They will be in Taiwan for three weeks doing nutrition education and working with athletes from the USA Team to help maximize their performance during the competition.

Though her path has taken many twists and turns and presented forks in the road, it may end up coming full circle. Once her internship is competed, Ellis’ ultimate goal is to come back to a Division I university, but this time not as a student. “I want to do a lot of things, but my passion really is in sports nutrition, specifically female athletes and those with eating disorders. Recently, more athletes have been coming forward in the media about their history with eating disorders or disordered eating. They’re a lot more prevalent than maybe people once thought or were willing to admit. There seems to still be this treatment gap where athletes who have been diagnosed then have to go out and find another treatment site, as opposed to having those resources in house. I think being able to be a sports dietician at a university and having experience with eating disorders would be extremely beneficial.”

So, why Drexel? “Drexel has a million opportunities for you. It's just up to you to take advantage of them and if you do, it pays back in tenfold what you put into it.”

Written by Maggie McCrea