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What it Means to be a Disabled Latina and Future RDN

Juliana Tamayo has Crohn's disease, lupus and POTS, and relies on a feeding tube for her daily nutrition. Learn why she wants to become a dietitian and read about her experience as a future RDN.

"We have to focus on 'the why' behind the lack of opportunities and accessibility for disabled minority students... Is dietetics perceived as an unapproachable profession in our communities? If we break down the why, we can begin to find solutions."

Juliana Tamayo

Author's portrait
By Juliana Tamayo

I'm Latina, and was born and raised in Colombia. I have called the United States my home for the last 10 years. Everything changed when I got sick, and I remember the day I received my first diagnosis.

Dietitians Changed My Life

I have Crohn's disease, lupus and postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome, among other illnesses, and rely on a feeding tube for my daily nutrition. I owe my life to my team of registered dietitian nutritionists. Not only did they believe in me, but they also encouraged me. I went from being malnourished and scared to nourished and hopeful. I got a feeding tube — instead of parenteral nutrition — and slowly got my life back.

Even though I had to give up my job as a journalist, the journey into nutrition support gave me a new perspective on what I needed in my future. I decided to pursue a career in dietetics.

Navigating College as a Disabled, Minority Student

Applying to schools when you are disabled and a minority is no easy task. I needed a school that understood my limitations — for instance, if I need emergency surgery due to a bowel obstruction or a feeding tube mishap.

I was lucky to find Kansas State University and its Master of Science and Didactic Program in Dietetics distance program. I also had the fortune of finding mentors along the way that understood me. I owe much of my academic successes to Dr. Linda Yarrow, who encourages and guides me in the right direction.

The first problem was how hard it was to find this program. Once I did, I still had to make space for myself. Most of my classmates are white and able-bodied. Why aren't there more disabled students? What about disabled, racial minority students? I think this might happen because there aren't systems in place to help us find these schools. It took me months of searching. I lost money in applications and hours of talking to advisors. I found a school that worked for me, but not everyone has that luxury.

Digging Deep for Change

Being disabled and Latina is hard, but it should not stop me from becoming a registered dietitian nutritionist. So, what can we do? I suggest that we first think of what is missing in our schools. Are there resources for minority groups? Are there student organizations minority students can talk to? Begin by questioning those in charge, and they will have no other choice but to hear you.

I had the opportunity to find a group of women who are also a minority in the field of dietetics thanks to the Academy's Women's Health DPG Diversity Award. They inspired me to talk about these issues and potential solutions. We have to focus on "the why" behind the lack of opportunities and accessibility for disabled minority students. Are schools unwilling to look at these populations? Are disabled racial minority students not applying to schools because of socioeconomic restraints? Is dietetics perceived as an unapproachable profession in our communities? If we break down the why, we can begin to find solutions.

Finally, I want to finish off by saying that "the who" in these situations matters. If I look hard, I can find people with similar problems, and together we could strive to make a place for ourselves. But are we working together to help other minority groups? Do we ourselves have certain prejudices? Fighting the fight for inclusion and representation means fighting it together.

Yes, I am disabled. Yes, I am Latina and an immigrant. I'm also a future RDN. And I am not alone. The academic structure that I feel left us behind will change, but it requires work and it needs our voices of advocacy.

This content originally appeared in Food & Nutrition Magazine®.

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