I have been everything from an academic advisor to a department chair at the University of North Florida. During my time on campus, I’ve witnessed the University’s growth from a number of perspectives and been honored to contribute to the development of the institution. It’s been a long, extremely rewarding ride for me here at UNF — a journey that I wouldn’t have believed when I first started out.
When I finished my doctorate at Rutgers University in 1988, I was looking for a university that taught nutrition. UNF had been in my mind since I saw a presentation from a faculty member during a conference, so I thought I’d give it a shot. This was about the same time the University was starting a brand new health college, making it a great time to get my foot in the door and work in a unit that was being developed. However, there weren’t any open nutrition faculty positions at the time, so I started working as an advisor. I often draw on my experience as an academic advisor now in my capacity as a professor and department chair because it taught me the underpinnings of the university system and showed me how I can make the college experience more coherent for students. I might be one of the only department chairs who truly enjoys putting together course schedules for students.
While I was an advisor, I also worked to get the baccalaureate nutrition program approved by its accrediting body. Part of that accreditation requirement was having a staff member who was also a registered dietician. That led me into the role of program director for the new nutrition program. Since taking over that position, I’ve seen the demand for a nutrition education grow tremendously. That first group was 30 students — now our undergraduate program has about 340. At the same time, I’ve watched UNF’s program become quite highly regarded across the country thanks to an institutional commitment to nurture success and occasionally take risks. The University’s administration realized years ago that there was a market for a robust nutrition program, and they’ve supported its development by adding master’s-level programs — including distance-learning formats — and naming it a distinguished Flagship Program, which has provided extra funding as we continue to improve our academic offerings and access to national internships for students. We’re now seeing students who are much more concerned about life-long learning opportunities instead of just getting a baccalaureate degree. The fact that we offer master’s degrees helps us enable the growth of these talented students. They’re civic-minded and tech-savvy. A day rarely goes by in which my students haven’t taught me something. It’s truly rewarding.
I’ve also been fortunate to witness the University’s move from an upper-division campus to one that is filled with undergrads. Having freshman and sophomores around campus really shifted the dynamic and charisma of the campus. As a result, student life has become so active and engaging. There’s always some kind of event happening that positively adds to the atmosphere.
As I look toward the future, I hope that I’m able to secure a doctoral program in nutrition by the time I jump off the UNF bus. The growth of the department to this point has been driven by the needs of our students, and a doctoral program is a natural evolution of our work. I see larger-scale grants, more student research and a generally higher level of prestige for UNF nutrition and dietetics in the future. I’m happy that I’ve been able to plot the course for such an incredible department.
Get to Know Dr. Judith Rodriguez
What brought you to UNF?
I had just finished my Ph.D. and I was looking for permanent work in my area. At that point, I had been working as a faculty member at a local community college and consultant prior to coming to Jacksonville. I wanted to be at a school that offered baccalaureate and graduate programs and nutrition courses.
What’s the most rewarding experience you’ve had with a student in one of your classes?
There are too many to select just one. In general, any time a student does an outstanding paper or presentation is a great day. Some have gone into leadership positions in the profession, including the president of the Jacksonville Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, and some have gone on to get doctoral degrees, leading them to become adjuncts at the University. It's an honor to know they want to come back.
What’s your inspiration for teaching?
Believing that the subject matter matters — it is vibrant, interesting, ever-changing and impactful. Eating is something people do every day, many times a day, so the opportunity to help is always there. Having students excited to carry the torch, to move the profession forward, is what inspires me.
Do you have a favorite spot on campus? If so, where is it?
What do you like about it? I enjoy walking around the Green by the Fine Arts Center. It’s always full of students reading, working in booths, playing games and socializing. It reminds me of when I was a student, the universality of the college experience and why I am here — the students.