Commencement 2018: Health sciences student finds reward, vocation in community outreach

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Fatima Tobar
Fatima Tobar. Photo by Michael Salerno

KINGSTON, R.I., April 12, 2018 — Fatima Tobar didn’t wait for opportunity to come knocking; she knocked first. As a freshman, she entered the Providence office of the URI Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program-Education (URI SNAP-Ed) and asked if she could volunteer doing community outreach.

A dual major in nutrition and food sciences and psychology in the College of Health Sciences, which runs the program, Tobar began volunteering and was soon offered a job helping conduct community-based nutrition education workshops, primarily targeting limited income populations.

She knew that she had found her niche. “Being in this office has helped me decide that I definitely want to work in the community,” said Tobar, who will be the first member of her family to earn a college degree when she graduates in May. “SNAP-Ed is so wonderful. I love working with children and with the older adults, but elementary schoolchildren have taken my heart.”

A native of El Salvador, the Providence resident came to the United States with her parents and younger sister (also a URI student) when she was five. She retains a few memories of her native country, including one of climbing on a fence, picking a mango from a tree and eating it. “That is so foreign to kids here,” she observed.

As a native Spanish speaker, Tobar takes joy in helping people who cannot speak English learn to prepare healthy food that is culturally relevant. In fact, she considers it her duty. “It would almost be a disgrace to my parents not to use my language to help people,” said the bilingual Tobar, noting the high rates of obesity and diabetes in the Hispanic population.

She and her SNAP-Ed colleagues offer nutrition education at elementary schools, senior centers, farmers’ markets, grocery stores and camps. They offer six-week programs on how to eat healthy on a budget, pop-up healthy cooking demonstrations and share techniques on a variety of related topics, including dealing with picky eaters, which Tobar can relate to. She was a picky eater before the program expanded her palate and gave her confidence as a cook.

“I think that’s been my biggest joy. Encouraging children to try something new,” she said.

Much of this work occurs in the evenings or on weekends in the Providence-metro area, which posed a challenge when Tobar did not have a car. She either took a bus or her mom drove her, and she credits her parents with being her biggest supporters. To afford college, Tobar lives at home with her mother and sister, commuting to classes. Her dad lives in Texas.

Still, she has made the most of her education. She assisted nutrition and food science doctoral student Noereem Mena with her dissertation research, which focuses on assessing eating behaviors of preschool-aged children at home and in child care settings, and on child nutrition communication between parents and family child care home providers. Tobar considers Mena a mentor.

She also counts her colleagues at URI SNAP-Ed as inspirations. “Joanna (Raymond, a SNAP-Ed nutrition educator) is who I aspire to be,” Tobar said.

And they have found much to admire in Tobar. “Fatima thrives on her audience. One day I had to turn the class over to Fatima because of an emergency and when I returned she had the whole class engaged, asking questions, and enjoying their learning experience,” said one colleague.

After graduation, Tobar plans to pursue a master’s degree in public health, which will allow her to combine her academic background with the community outreach that she loves.