Dietetics Program Director
Penny Whelchel was working as Aramark’s campus dietitian at Stephen F. Austin State University in 2008 when she received a call from Henderson State University’s chair of the Family and Consumer Sciences Department.
The position of dietetics program director was open at Henderson and the chair encouraged Whelchel to apply since she was an alumnus of the program.
“At first I said I was not interested; teaching was not something I ever planned to do,” Whelchel said. “However, I couldn’t sleep that night after she called. I felt like I had outgrown my current position and was looking for a challenge at the time.
“It was like fate had intervened, showing me the path forward, and I couldn’t ignore it.”
Whelchel graduated from Henderson in 2004 with a B.S. degree in family consumer sciences, specializing in dietetics. She earned her M.S. in food and nutrition, nutrition education and health promotion specialization at Florida State University in 2006.
It’s the students at Henderson who keep Whelchel excited about teaching.
“I have met some truly wonderful individuals over the years, and I feel humbled to have had the opportunity to play a role in such a pivotal time in their lives,” she said. “The students have fresh enthusiasm for the subject matter, and that keeps me enthusiastic about it.”
Whelchel describes her teaching style as “an eclectic mix of quirky, hands-on, organized and methodical.”
“I like to start class off with a cheesy joke or meme, and some days I wear roller skates,” she said. “There’s no reason why students can’t learn and have fun at the same time. I often show YouTube video clips, discuss nutrition in the news, and share personal stories to relate course content to real life.
“These tactics also foster student participation through creating an environment that encourages engagement. I would also say that I’m very consistent; my students always know what to expect from me. I’m tough, but fair.”
Whelchel said her students have a genuine interest in the subject matter and want to make it part of their life’s work.
“The students are in my classroom because they choose to be,” she said. “This is far different from the ‘captive audience’ nature of students in primary and secondary school. I find it incredibly satisfying to watch my students grow in knowledge, confidence and professionalism.
“By the time most of them graduate, I would be proud to have them as colleagues. I love to keep in touch with my students and follow their progress after graduation; some of them have become lifelong friends.”
With the aging population, obesity crisis, increased public interest in food and nutrition, and rampant nutrition “misinformation” available online, Whelchel said there is an urgent need for registered dietitians that will continue to increase.
Registered dietitians are needed in clinical, community, food service, fitness and research settings, she said. Having a degree in dietetics allows students to apply for dietetic internships.
“Dietetic internships are very competitive and take only the best and the brightest students,” Whelchel said. “Those who aspire to be ‘RD’s’ should focus on maintaining a high GPA, seek out and accumulate nutrition-related work experience, and regularly volunteer their time to a dietetics-related community service activity or organization.
“Students should be willing to step out of their comfort zone to take advantage of big opportunities that will make them stand out among other applicants when they seek an internship position.”
If she wasn’t in the teaching profession, Whelchel said she would enjoy serving as a corporate wellness registered dietitian, working for a grocery store chain, or working with a health and human performance lab.
“If not wearing my RD hat, I have long wanted to be a guide for cross-country bicycle tours or bicycle vacation tours,” she said.
Cycling is a big part of Whelchel’s activities outside of nutrition. She participates in a variety of endurance sports such as Ironman triathlons. Whelchel has completed nine marathons, including Boston.
“Endurance sports are more of a lifestyle for me than a hobby,” she said.
Whelchel also “loves all things rabbit-related” and advocates for rabbits as free-range, indoor pets.
“My Holland lop rabbit, Doppler, is 11 and has never spent a day of his life in a cage since I brought him home at 5 months old,” she said.
Family and Consumer Sciences
Degree and School:
M.S. in Food and Nutrition, Florida State University
I've been at Henderson since: