Personalized Health and Well-Being graduate pivots to altruistic career path

Karen Middle Karen Smith was walking around the American College of Lifestyle Medicine’s annual conference in 2022 in Orlando, Florida, when she came across The University of North Texas Health Science Center at Fort Worth’s booth. Smith, a registered dietician for almost 20 years, had already decided she wanted to return to school. After a lengthy conversation about the Department of Personalized Health and Well-Being’s Lifestyle Health Sciences and Coaching program, she found an academic home — completely online.

Now, the Abingdon, Maryland resident has entered into private practice as an RD and lifestyle medicine health coach. In addition to working with large companies, she offers her services to everyone, regardless of their ability to pay.

“I am passionate about helping people take a holistic look at all of their health behaviors and being more of a guide for them,” she said. “I believe wholeheartedly that people have all the answers within themselves. They don’t need me to be this expert telling them what to do. Through their own past experience and knowing themselves and utilizing their strengths, I can help them create a plan for sustainable change.”

Smith said she was drawn to the School of Health Professions’ program because it combines lifestyle medicine with health and wellness coaching. For the past several years, she said, she became more interested in behavior change — a major focus of PHWB’s program.

“I like to use the word thrive,” she said. “I don’t want people just surviving through the day to day but living a life that is meaningful and giving them tools to manage stress.”

Karen SmithHer M.S. in Lifestyle Health Sciences and Coaching not only spurred her new career path, but it allowed her to address her own moral injury. Prior to becoming a certified well-being coach, she worked in a clinical setting that was wrought with the usual bureaucratic hurdles of the American health care system. Caring for patients meant having to navigate insurance panels and other red tape.

As a 45-year-old wife and mother of three, who also works full-time, getting back into the swing of school was a challenge for Smith. The online platform and her classmates made the coursework doable, she said.

“It’s the perfect program to do it because you’re learning how to change behaviors and set up systems for success,” she said. “I liked that it was online. That worked for me. Obviously, I’m in Maryland, but can’t move to Texas. Even though it was online, our cohort was really tight. So that was a pleasant bonus to me that we were able to form some really great relationships, even though we’ve never met in person.”

Her classmates thought extremely highly of Smith, In an anonymous survey, one student said she has “a wonderful, curious and easy way about her coaching.”

She also made an impression on PHWB’s faculty.

“Throughout the program, Karen has demonstrated a very positive, professional and pro-active attitude, as well as a strong drive to excel, and a genuine interest in encouraging her classmates/peers to succeed in their endeavors,” said Assistant Professor Cynthia Powell, MA, CHWC, IWLC.

For Smith, teaching clients about how to live a healthy lifestyle is more than an occupation. She lives in every day. She is an avid runner who competes in multiple races and placed in the top 1% of women finishers at the 2015 and 2016 Boston Marathons.

“I have really loved the program,” she said of HSC’s PHWB offering. “I feel like it’s really enhanced my skills, given me a lot more tools and helped me think about my future opportunities and how I want to help people.”

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