Dara Dirhan Named Outstanding Dietetic Educator by National and State Organizations
Dara Dirhan ’10, M’12, West Chester University associate professor of nutrition and director of the Didactic Program in Dietetics, has been recognized by both the Nutrition and Dietetic Educators and Preceptors (NDEP) and the Pennsylvania Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (PAND) as Outstanding Dietetic Educator.
“Receiving these awards on both the national and state levels has been a very humbling experience,” said Dirhan. “Each day, I make a concerted effort to be the best professor that I can be by employing the most effective teaching strategies and techniques, by putting my students’ needs first to help them to succeed, and by being a kind and approachable person whom students can turn to for guidance and advice. These awards give me confidence that my efforts are paying off.”
Dirhan’s research experience centers on best practices in teaching and learning pedagogy, including game-based learning, and studying student outcomes among undergraduate nutrition students. Her current research focuses on studying mindfulness in undergraduate nutrition students, intuitive eating, presence among educators, and advocating for the inclusion of nutrition as a general education course requirement in the undergraduate curriculum.
After taking an introductory nutrition course with Sandra Walz, associate professor of nutrition, in the summer of 2007, Dirhan fell in love with the field of nutrition and dietetics, prompting her to switch her major from pharmaceutical product development. With the help of her undergraduate advisor and professor Janet Lacey, Dirhan earned her undergraduate degree in four years, even after changing her major her sophomore year.
After graduating from the undergraduate dietetics program in 2010, she completed a dietetic internship at Geisinger Medical Center, where she discovered her passion for sharing teachable moments with patients – teaching carbohydrate counting, cardiac class for patients with a history of heart disease, and more. These experiences prompted her to pursue adjunct teaching in higher education. Soon after earning her master’s degree in public health from WCU, she began teaching nutrition here as an adjunct instructor as well as at Montgomery County Community College and the Community College of Philadelphia. She earned her doctorate in educational leadership and management with a concentration in higher education from Drexel University and became a full-time assistant professor at WCU by the 2016 fall semester.
“I absolutely fell in love with teaching and knew that I wanted to make it my full-time job,” she said.
Dirhan cited professor Jeff Harris as her biggest source of motivation and inspiration. He encouraged her both to pursue a graduate assistantship while earning her master’s and to earn her doctoral degree, and supported her in her job pursuits in academia. He is her senior faculty mentor.
Dirhan incorporates her research in the classroom, using tools like Kahoot for students’ retention of knowledge. She also records audio feedback on students’ projects instead of written feedback and encourages nutrition students to keep a journal as a mindfulness exercise to make them more effective nutrition counselors. Given the great success and impact the introductory nutrition course has had fulfilling the science general education requirement at WCU, she along with her colleague, conduct survey research on institutions across the country as to whether or not they offer nutrition courses in their general education curriculum.
Her advice for nutrition students: “The world is your oyster and you could create the job of your dreams. If you can dream it, you can do it.”
Last spring, Dirhan taught a free acrylic painting class at the Center for Contemplative Studies to encourage students, faculty, and staff to practice mindful painting for an hour. She is teaching it again this fall.
NDEP, a unit of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, consists of more than 1,350 educator and preceptor members; its mission is to advocate for and empower educators and preceptors to lead the profession of nutrition and dietetics. The Pennsylvania Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, an affiliate of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, is the advocate of the dietetics profession serving the public through the promotion of optimal nutrition, health, and well-being with nearly 3,700 members throughout the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.