Grad Student Leaves Civil Unrest at Home to Study Nutrition at Rutgers
Jennifer Chalhoub left Lebanon to study diet as the first intervention to treating illness
Two weeks before Jennifer Chalhoub was set to leave Beirut for a master’s degree program at Rutgers University, a blast ripped through Lebanon’s capital city, killing more than 200 people and injuring more than 7,000.
Her family was spared, but Chalhoub was torn about leaving them behind. The country was in the throes of civil unrest, had endured months of lockdown because of the COVID-19 pandemic and now was devastated by one of the world’s largest explosions, caused by tons of improperly stored ammonium nitrate at the Port of Beirut.
“It was very difficult,” said Chalhoub of her decision to leave Lebanon for Newark in August 2020 to begin the Rutgers School of Health Professions Entry-Level Master of Science in Clinical Nutrition program. “It was very emotional. I had friends who lost homes and who lost loved ones. But I felt like I had a mission and I had to come to the United States.”
Two years later, she has graduated and was selected to deliver a convocation address for the School of Health Professions’ (SHP) Class of 2022 on May 18 at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center.
Jennifer Tomesko, program director and mentor to Chalhoub, said she stood out even as an applicant. “She wanted so badly to come to America to get this degree and to have a better life and better career,” said Tomesko.
“In all my years of teaching, I have never met anyone like her. She always strives to learn the most she can. No matter what class or rotation, she wanted to gain as much knowledge as possible. She volunteered for everything and took every chance she was offered to gain the experience to become the best dietitian that she could be.”
Although Chalhoub was born in the United States during a time when her father, who is Lebanese, was working as a chef in Brooklyn, the family returned to their country when she was three years old.
Her interest in nutrition was sparked after seeing her aunt, who struggled with obesity, lose weight and become healthier after working with a dietitian.
She earned her undergraduate degree in nutrition in Lebanon but wanted to obtain her master’s degree in the U.S. where, unlike in her home country, the profession has moved beyond primarily managing weight and obesity to focusing on medical nutrition therapy.
“I wanted to treat people through food. With any medical condition, diet is the first intervention,” Chalhoub said.
Her clinical rotation at University Hospital in Newark, a Level One trauma center, allowed her to work with people of different socio-economic backgrounds, ethnicities and cultures, many of whom were seriously ill. She tended to patients in pediatrics, oncology, orthopedics, maternity, trauma and surgical intensive care, applying the critical thinking skills she learned in her classes.
In the last three weeks of her clinical rotation, where students work as practicing dietitians, Chalhoub was in the critical care intensive care unit. “Students don’t usually work in that unit, but she did because she was that good,” said Tomesko.
Chalhoub said it was frightening to come to the United States at the age of 21, having never lived anywhere but in her family’s home, which she said is typical in Lebanon. But with help and support from her peers, Rutgers faculty and staff, she moved past her homesickness and thrived.
“Faculty and staff were always there when I needed them. They made me challenge myself and think out of the box through the whole program,” she said. “Every professor who taught me touched my heart in a way that I will carry with me.”
While a student, Chalhoub joined numerous professional associations and school groups. She also supported her peers as an academic tutor in the Enrollment Management Academic Success Center. Iris Espinosa, director for Student Success and the Educational Opportunity Fund at the School of Health Professions, said Chalhoub continually searched for new ways to help her students that went beyond academics.
“She came here alone, from another country, struggling with the culture and language. It wasn’t easy, but she is here in this country doing big things and helping people here and back at home. Her story is a beautiful story of perseverance and resiliency. She was a major part of the SHP community. We are excited to see what she has to offer the world.” Espinosa said.
Having graduated in January, Chalhoub is now working in a long-term, sub-acute facility primarily with geriatric patients who are on dialysis or have diabetes.
“I’m loving it,” she said. “I fell in love with clinical nutrition and feel this is what I was born to do.”