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Keeping it Real - Facebook Helps Marine Student Connect Wildcat Dietetics Students, Alumni and Faculty

Ken Roberts speaking at graduation receptionKansas State University Global Campus students and alumni know how hard it can be to connect with other students and with your professors from far away.

Ken Roberts, who earned his dietetics degree while living and working in Thailand, the Philippines, South Korea and Japan, understands this well.

Roberts was born and raised in Vermont and left for boot camp in the U.S. Marines a week after high school. He went on to serve 20 years in active duty.

While serving as drill instructor at Parris Island, South Carolina, Roberts became interested in martial arts training and sports nutrition and decided to pursue a bachelor’s degree in dietetics.

Working on his education in both traditional settings and through distance learning became standard operating procedure, but after the worst terror attack our country ever faced, only one of these options remained possible.

“After Sept. 11, I never sat in a college classroom again,” Roberts said.

In 2012, he had a simple idea that has made a big difference for a lot of distance dietetics students. He started a Facebook group for his program.

“Initially, it wasn’t to talk about the class assignments because we could do that on discussion boards,” Roberts said. “It was to try to build a connection, so the conversations were just about introducing yourself. Some professors try to do this, but nobody really likes to talk or share in those things because it’s forced. Whereas on social media, people will spill their guts.”

Members of the group began to talk about where they were from, share study resources and more.

“Sometimes it was just talking about the trials of being a parent, and still working, and working on a dietetics degree, and trying to get an internship,” Roberts said. “It’s nice to connect with other people going through the exact same thing.”

These conversations help the students bond, leading to a better online learning experience. Roberts said that getting acquainted on Facebook means that when they later have classes with their new Facebook friends, they comment more on each other’s assignments because they know each other.

“I’d like to say that it can almost simulate the connections you’d make when you’re an on-campus student seeing each other every day in class. When we meet at the Food and Nutrition Conference Expo, or other dietetics events that we have, it’s kind of like we’re old friends.”

The group is exclusively for distance students.

“Not to be biased,” he said, “but more because on-campus students can walk into the faculty’s office any day of the week to ask questions or get help.” Roberts’ group helps bridge that gap, especially because some faculty and advisors are also members.

One professor in particular made a huge impact on Roberts. Deb Canter, now professor emeritus, went above and beyond for her distance students.

“The very first course I took set the tone for me in 2012,” Roberts said. “I was getting ready to go to Korea and I knew I couldn’t listen to these lectures online. She downloaded all these prerecorded lectures, put them on CD and mailed them to me in Japan.”

Canter and Roberts still stay in touch through Facebook.

Roberts and his sonAnother professor, Linda Yarrow, would record all her clinical nutrition lectures live and upload them for the distance students.

“Sometimes she would say things in those lectures to the distance students that made you feel like you’re in the class,” Roberts said. “Even mentioning you by name. It made that connection really strong.”

Nowadays, Roberts stays involved in the group, even as members roll over with each new cohort of students. “One of the things I’ve tried to do in there over the years is tell students, ‘If you’ve got any questions, ask us.’”

Roberts has created documents in the group in which alumni can post where they work or activities that they’re involved in, whether that’s sports nutrition or public health, so that current students can reach out and connect with them.

Through his Facebook group, Roberts is able to stay involved in his program and with K-State.

“I still try to pop in and make sure dialogue is going, and I try to reassure students who want to be a dietitian or need an internship.” He mentions faculty and advisors, and recommends them to current students.

“I’m proud of having gone to K-State,” Roberts said.

Roberts retired from active duty last year but his educational journey isn’t over yet. He lives in Illinois and commutes to St. Louis for the Individualized Supervised Practice Pathway at Fontbonne University, giving him the internship experience he needs to take the national registration exam, his final step in becoming a registered dietitian.

Roberts knows that the Facebook group he created, which now has over 300 members, has changed over the years. But the connections are still there.

“I’ve never been to Kansas State except for the two days I was there for graduation in 2016,” Roberts said. “But some of the students I’ve had classes with I consider close friends.”