by Emily Roque Cisneros, Union graduate and freelance writer
When Jared Dittmer enrolled in Union College’s education program, he felt he had discovered his calling. But upon taking the Concepts of Wellness course, Dittmer became a different person—for the better.
He went from being too self-conscious to even walk into a gym to running the 13.2-mile Lincoln half-marathon–twice. And, he lost more than 60 pounds while at Union.
“I had this ah-ha moment in Concepts where I realized everything just came down to taking care of myself,” he said. “I remember being told to treat my body like a temple. I realized being unhealthy wasn’t being true to myself.”
Dittmer first learned about Union College from a co-worker. In 2009 Dittmer was studying at Southeast Community College and wrestling between two choices: continue at SCC and become a surgical technician, or enroll in a bachelor’s program to become a teacher.
While discussing his dilemma at work, Union College alum Dylan Wren ’08 suggested looking into Union’s education program.
“When he told me how personal the school was, that people actually knew each other, my attention was hooked,” said Dittmer. Although he wasn’t familiar with the Seventh-day Adventist faith tradition, Dittmer appreciated Union’s Christian values. “After applying and speaking with several faculty members, I knew being an elementary teacher was my calling.”
Learning healthy living
His first year Dittmer took Concepts of Wellness, taught by Health and Human Performance Director Dr. Nancy Petta. After seeing his blood test results, Dittmer decided it was time to make some changes. “I just didn’t realize how unhealthy I was,” he said.
First, he cut out soda. Living right across from the gas station, Dittmer used to drink four 52-oz sodas a day.
“I couldn’t believe how much pure sugar I was drinking till I saw it,” he said, referring to Dr. Petta’s class demonstration showing 10 teaspoons of sugar in one soda. “I haven’t had a sip since.”
From there the healthy living concepts started to click. As part of the class, students are required to exercise for 12 weeks. Dittmer decided to try running.
“Dr. Petta gave me the best advice,” he said. “She told me, ‘When you have that craving for soda, go and do something else.’ Running helped take my mind off my stresses.”
At first, Dittmer couldn’t run for five minutes. By the end of the semester, he was doing cardio and lifting weights at Larson Lifestyle Center for 60 minutes at a time during study breaks.
“I felt a big difference in my health and the weight just started melting off,” he said.
The goal of encouraging exercise, according to Dr. Petta, is to show students the importance of implementing healthy habits now so they can continue after graduation. “Research is now showing that sitting is more harmful than smoking,” she said. “If students can experiment now and find something that works then they’re more likely to stick with it and have a healthy heart in the long run.”
To date, Dittmer has run several 5k races as well as running two half-marathons.
Changing body equals changing mind
Dittmer also started paying more attention to food labels and portion sizes. “I try to teach practical concepts students can use long after they graduate,” said Dr. Petta. “Healthy living is all about balance. It’s important to be mindful, but not obsessive.”
Dittmer’s mental health also improved as a result of becoming healthier. “I gained more self-esteem and felt I could accomplish other things in my life,” he said.
He relied on the discipline developed in Concepts to keep him motivated to finish school. Between working full-time and studying part-time, Dittmer kept telling himself, “Don’t give up.”
While at Union, Dittmer continued to stay in contact with Dr. Petta, sending photos of his progress and speaking to other Concepts classes about his lifestyle changes. He even hired a personal trainer to keep him accountable.
“I wanted Dr. Petta to know what a difference that class can make,” he said. “My education classes made me a better teacher, but Concepts made me a better person.”
By covering topics like exercise, fat/sodium intake, fiber, heart disease, cancer and blood pressure in Concepts of Wellness, Dr. Petta hopes to encourage students to see the importance of physical health for wellbeing. “I don’t care if you’re a surgeon in the hospital or on Wall Street. You have to take care of yourself or you can’t do your absolute best,” she said.
Living a calling
After graduating in 2016, Dittmer taught kindergarten in Nebraska for two years. He now teaches second and third grade in Bazine, Kansas. “I’m the person I am today and get to do what I love thanks to Union. I may not be able to have Jesus in my classroom while working in a public school, but I can shine Jesus through myself,” he said.
He believes part of showing the kids Jesus is being able to play with them.“I want to be the teacher who can be active,” he said. “It’s important to show others that health matters and that if you aren’t healthy it’s harder to enjoy your calling in life.”
Although Dittmer has gained back some of the weight lost while at Union, he’s still managed to keep off 30 pounds. “It’s easy to give up when you’re not seeing results or have gotten off track, but I’m learning how important it is to keep going,” he said.
Dittmer keeps going back to the basic concepts—watching what he eats and exercising—to help him stay focused on his health. Recently he joined a gym to work on gaining muscle, and is staying accountable through three friends teaching him proper techniques.
“I feel confident telling my students that, ‘There are no fails, just learning experiences,” he said. “I keep my race medals at the school, right next to my Union College diploma, to show them how not to give up—that I didn’t give up.”