Alessandra Sommer (SEBS’23, Nutritional Sciences, with a Dietetics option) had her sights set on getting certification as a nutritionist so she enrolled at Union College to get her associate’s degree and then finding work immediately. She performed so well in organic chemistry that her professor at Union College urged her to aim higher and pursue a four-year degree.
Alessandra, who is part-Colombian and part-German, comes from a tight-knit family. She and her three siblings inherited a strong work ethic from their parents, who own and operate a family restaurant in Westfield, Old Havana Cuban Cuisine, that survived the lean years of the pandemic.
She felt the pressure of being a first-generation college student. Serving as an example for her family motivated her to seek every available opportunity on campus to succeed.
“Being the first in my family to seek higher education has definitely been a learning curve for me and my family, but it has also made me work even harder throughout my educational career.”
Alessandra brought that drive to succeed with her when she transferred to Rutgers School of Environmental and Biological Sciences (SEBS) in fall 2021.
To say that she’s had a productive two years at SEBS is a bit of an understatement. Not only has she maintained a 3.94 GPA and worked on multiple, high-profile research projects, she was awarded a prestigious nutrition research fellowship, co-authored two research papers published in prestigious journals, worked as a learning assistant and attended a national conference. And, before she graduates with her peers at SEBS Convocation on May 15, she has even begun working “in a clinical setting as a diet technician at Robert Wood Johnson Hospital.”
From the time she joined the Cook Campus community, she’s enjoyed being a member of the Rutgers Students for Environmental Awareness (SEAgulls) club.
“I enjoyed being surrounded by like-minded students who also wanted to raise climate change awareness.”
With club members’ support, she initiated a campaign that reduces food waste in the culinary nutrition education labs of Rutgers. She organized routine scraps collection during lab sessions and a bi-weekly pickup service in which food scraps are brought to the Rutgers farm to be composted.
“This project has, in one semester, collected more than 30 pounds of food scraps from the Rutgers culinary nutrition labs.”
Alessandra wanted to participate in as many research projects as she could, both to gain hands-on knowledge but also to experience the sense of making a real difference in real-life settings.
She’s been involved in three research projects with Rutgers Cooperative Extension, including the Rutgers Culture of Health School Program (RCHSP), which fosters and promotes lifestyles centered around physical activity and nutritional literacy for youth. Alessandra began by teaching classes, with supervision, to pre-K students in the Edison Townships Public Schools. By the end of the six-month program, she had gained so much experience that was given a great deal of autonomy, “teaching 44 lessons to K-12 students, and sometimes teaching up to 40 students per class.”
Based on her work with RCHSP, Alessandra won a prestigious American Society for Nutrition (ASN) Undergraduate Diversity Research Fellowship and will present her findings in July at the ASN’s annual flagship meeting, NUTRITION 2023, in Boston, MA.
She got a taste of making an impact at the international level through her involvement with the Local Conference of Youth for Climate Change (LCOY).
“I got the amazing opportunity to co-author a document of climate change advocacy demands in collaboration with over 200 other youth delegates from across the country and world. Our document was presented at COP27 hosted by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.”
She credits the support of her family and her best friends Allie and Leahnie with keeping her grounded, and the research opportunities she was able to pursue, thanks to the belief and guidance from faculty.
“I am extremely grateful for all the success I have had over the past two years. However, I would not have been able to do any of this if it weren’t for the mentorship of Professor Daniel Hoffman (Nutritional Sciences), Sara Elnakib (chair, NJAES Department of Family and Consumer Health Sciences) and Erin Comollo (program development administrator for the New Jersey Healthy Kids Initiative).”
Alessandra continues to set her sights higher. She plans to pursue a master’s degree in Nutritional Sciences – Dietetics and obtain her registered dietitian (RDN) credentials.
“I look forward to working as a clinical dietician where I can give back to my community, expand my knowledge and develop experience working with patients of varying clinical conditions.”
Where does she see herself in the next 10 years?
“In the near future I envision that I will be a very skilled dietician who is able to contribute to the health and wellness of my community. When I think about my future career, I also see myself striving to improve upon nutritional standards of schools and hospitals in the United States while addressing the sustainability of America’s food systems.