By Emily Packard
Work-life balance takes on a new meaning when you’re a student at NC State in addition to being an employee. That’s the case for Lauren Morris, a fall 2021 graduate in the online parks, recreation, tourism and sport management (PRTSM) master’s program.
Morris, a native of Halifax County, spends her workdays as a regional nutrition extension associate within the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. In addition to Halifax County, she serves Hertford, Gates, Northampton, Nash, Edgecombe, Wilson, Franklin and Johnston Counties, providing citizens with nutrition education, and stresses the importance of healthy food and physical activity access for residents in these counties.
After working seven years as a clinical dietitian in a small local hospital, Morris took a leap of faith in 2017 and accepted a grant-funded position in the NC Cooperative Extension office in Northampton County as the Health Matters associate. There, she worked with communities to help increase healthy food and physical activity access. She found a new passion for physical activity and recreation access, which inspired her to seek her master’s degree.
Beginning in 2024, a master’s degree will be required to become a Registered Dietitian. While Morris and others who are already Registered Dietitians would be grandfathered in, she knew that she would need this degree to be competitive for career advancement opportunities.
“I enrolled in the PRTSM online master’s program because I knew it would be a perfect fit for my work, career advancement interests and home life,” said Morris. “The flexible learning environment of this program allowed me to continue working full-time while raising my family and achieving my professional goal to obtain my master’s degree.”
To help pay for her education, Morris took advantage of the NC State’s tuition waiver program, which pays for university employees to take three courses per year at any UNC System school. She took online courses as a non-degree student prior to enrolling, which allowed her to get back into the swing of college courses after receiving her undergraduate degree a decade ago.
Morris officially started her program in fall 2019. Since then, the online program gave her the opportunity to work alongside recreation departments, county governments, N.C. Cooperative Extension, small business owners and many others to fulfill her degree requirements. Being able to collaborate with those in and outside of the university provided an interdisciplinary experience that will prove invaluable in the future.
Of course, Morris received crucial support along the way that allowed her to successfully complete her degree.
“I absolutely could not have done this without my husband, who did everything he could to ensure my classes wouldn’t be interrupted and that I had time to work on my coursework. He honestly deserves an award for everything he sacrificed during this time,” said Morris. “There were countless evenings where he had to do everything alone for our kids and I am so thankful for him.”
Over the past several years, Morris has experienced her fair share of ups and downs in her personal and professional life. She has watched her children grow, develop their own personalities, and even begin elementary school. At times she held her young son to help him fall asleep, while she sat at her kitchen table participating in live online classes.
“The understanding of the professors, the format of these courses, and the flexibility of the program, I was able to balance work, family and coursework. I even went through a position elimination and, thankfully, have since grown in my career.”
Morris attributes her career advancement to the skills and knowledge she learned in her online master’s program. While her current position is not directly a parks, recreation, tourism or sport management position, she is responsible for providing technical assistance to agents and communities for policy, system and environmental changes that include improving/enhancing physical activity opportunities and access.
She thrives on helping the communities, especially low-income communities, drive community-wide changes related to parks, recreation and tourism. One of her favorite aspects of her job is helping communities identify ways to provide safe and equitable access to recreation and physical activities. She has utilized the knowledge and skills learned in her master’s courses to listen and learn the needs and goals of the community while sharing knowledge and opportunities with them to make enhancements, suggestions and improvements.
“I never thought that as a dietitian I would obtain a master’s degree in parks, recreation, tourism and sport management but I now have a well-rounded education that has prepared me for my current position,” said Morris. “Moving forward, I will continue to use this experience and knowledge to assist rural communities in eastern North Carolina. I am extremely thankful for the support, guidance, and experiences gained from the faculty and staff in the Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism Management, as well as my family, mentors, supervisors, colleagues and friends who supported me through this journey.”