RDN Spotlight: Kendra Tolbert, MS, RDN, RYT, CLC
What is your ethnicity/race? Did your family have any customs related to food that you can tell us about?
I am African American. My family didn't have any food-related customs but food was always very important. My Nana was an amazing cook. Some of my fondest memories from childhood are of her making gumbo, sweet potato turnovers, and jambalaya. I also grew up with a very diverse group of friends in Southern California (a.k.a. SoCal) so I ate menudo, pierogies, and lumpia almost as much as I ate the Cajun food my grandma loved to cook.
Tell us where you went to school and completed your dietetic internship.
I completed my Bachelor of Science in Nutritional Sciences (Pre-dental- it's a long story) at Howard University [an HBCU] in Washington, DC and my Master of Science in Nutrition and Public Health, plus the Dietetic Internship at Teachers College, Columbia University in New York City.
Because most of my classmates and professors were African American, I had no clue how rare we were in the field of dietetics. It never even crossed my mind. Not needing to be occupied with being "an only" guarded me from some of the insecurities I would later face as a result of being in the minority. On top of that, I was in DC, which is incredibly diverse. Everywhere I went there was someone who looked like me. My field placement supervisor at the USDA, the first WIC Dietitian I shadowed, the [Clinical Nutrition Manager] at Howard Hospital where I volunteered- they were all black and great at what they did. So grateful for them.
Why did you decide to choose nutrition and dietetics as a career?
Where do I start? I was at Howard, wrapping up my second year as a Biology/ Pre-Dental major when I suddenly realized dentistry wasn't the right fit. I was hellbent on graduating in four years so I needed to transfer to a major where all my science credits wouldn't be a total waste. I started looking at all my options and discovered Howard had a Nutritional Sciences/ Pre-Dental track. I transferred and quickly fell in love with nutrition. I don't think I fully understood all of the career options available at that point, but I knew I was studying something that mattered and that I enjoyed. Once I shadowed a WIC dietitian, I was smitten. I knew then that I wanted to work in maternal health.
What was the biggest challenge for you in becoming a dietitian and how did you overcome it?
My biggest challenge was that pesky calculator they give you during the DI exam. Seriously. I was so nervous I couldn't figure out how to turn the darn thing on! I had to do some breathing exercise and give myself a little pep talk.
How have mentors affected your career?
The really beautiful thing about this field is the people who tend to be drawn to it are some of the most generous and caring folks around. I've been incredibly fortunate to have some amazing mentors. They've encouraged me when I've wanted to quit, challenged me when I've tried to play it safe, and have shown me that there are no limits to the types of opportunities we can create for ourselves.
Why do you think diversifying this field is important?
Representation matters. It's important that people see people who look like them leading a healthy life and guiding others so they can do the same. I remember doing a focus group with teens living in a housing project in Staten Island back when there was lots of focus on food deserts. I asked the kids what their reasons were for not eating more fruits and vegetables. Everything I had been told led me to believe they were going to say fruits and veggies were too expensive or there weren't enough options in their neighborhoods. Nope. They said it was because healthy eating was for white people. And they were so serious about it. The images they saw of people eating healthfully were of people who didn't look like them. The doctors and nurses who recommended they choose plant-based foods didn't look like them. And the nutrition experts on TV and in magazines didn't look like them. So they decided it wasn't for them. They actually decided a life of health was not for them because of the color of their skin. I'm sure they're not the only ones who think that way.
What advice you would give a student of color interested in entering this profession?
Find a mentor. Connect with other nutrition students and professionals. And most importantly, get started- just do it. I remember hearing Myleik Teele (founder of CurlBox) talk about how sometimes women of color are afraid to be the only person of color in their field or organization. She said (and I'm paraphrasing here) "If you're the only one who looks like you, then you're needed. Someone needs you to be the first."
Do you know an RDN of color who we should feature in our Spotlight Series? Shoot us a message and tell us more about this (even if that RDN is you!).