Aireal Williams always knew she wanted to combine her passion for service to her country with her passion for food. Born in South Korea while her mother was deployed with the Army, she grew up on various military bases in the United States.
After graduating from Columbus High School in Columbus, Georgia, Aireal attended Columbus State University, obtaining her bachelor’s degree in Health Science. Nutrition and health were always at the forefront of her mind. Aireal remembers her high school math teacher challenging her to find what she was passionate about.
“I knew I was interested in food and helping people and after that class, I went home and researched jobs that involved those two things,” Aireal said. “‘Dietitian’ popped up and I’ve been chasing that passion ever since.”
Her interests only grew when her mother was diagnosed with colorectal cancer in 2014. Aireal remembers having to learn what her mother could and couldn’t eat because of her diagnosis. Aireal knew she wanted to honor her mother by becoming a military dietitian and in pursuit of that goal, she began looking for a degree program in Nutrition that was accepted by the military. She found University of Alabama and began her second bachelor’s degree in 2018 soon after her graduation from Columbus State and joining the Army.
“The UA program carries itself and it’s a very notable name. I also needed the flexibility that UA offered,” Aireal said.
“I had quite a bit going on in my life with the military transition but I didn’t want to slow down because I didn’t want to give up on my dream.” She began her journey to obtain her BS in Food and Nutrition.
Aireal describes herself as a “go-getter” and rightfully so as she took four classes every semester in order to finish her degree in two years with the credits she already had from Columbus State. She spent her days at work and dedicated her nights and weekends to schoolwork. “Starbucks was my best friend. I would go almost every day to get work done and sometimes I would run into the nurses that worked at the hospital on base or that were Columbus State University Nursing students and we would quiz each other on things.”
Aireal gives credit to her family for supporting her throughout the program. She spent a lot of time at her mother’s house where they would have dinners together and her mother would help her study.
Not only was Aireal juggling a full-time job with four classes each semester, but she was also actively volunteering. She took a particular interest in community nutrition and volunteered at a farmer’s market and a gym, helping children learn about proper nutrition. Aireal also volunteered at the hospital at Fort Benning, where she got a taste working in the clinical nutrition office experiencing the duties of a military dietitian.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Aireal was most disappointed not to be able to continue her service learning and volunteering as a part of the program. Although some aspects of her job changed due to the pandemic, Aireal felt that she was better off than many others, academically speaking. “Virtual learning has been my whole life practically the past two years, so COVID didn’t affect my learning style, thankfully,” Aireal said.
Although Aireal is a human resources officer, she is looking to transition out of that role and become a registered dietitianfor the Army. By 2024, all new registered dietitians will be required to have a master’s in Nutrition. Aireal has applied to the military-sponsored nutrition master’s degree program through Baylor University. Baylor University offers a fast-track program for military dietetics and students take classes at a satellite campus in San Antonio, Texas. Only about 20 students are accepted each year, but Aireal said UA prepared her well for the program’s rigorous application process.
Specifically, her Medical Nutrition Therapy class gave her insight on how clinical nutrition works. Aireal learned about chronic diseases and what foods are best for people with those diseases. “I could relate what I was learning in class to issues that military personnel face and how to resolve those issues using nutrition,” Aireal said.
Aireal completed her bachelor’s in May 2020 but came to Tuscaloosa for commencement in August 2020 for a delayed ceremony due to social distancing guidelines. She will find out about acceptance to Baylor’s program in April 2021 but feels confident that her education from UA will help her stand out.
“I want people to know my journey and strive to achieve their dreams too. Alabama was a great experience and as a service member, I appreciate having the opportunity to study and complete my degree at the University of Alabama.”
Published: November 9th, 2020