September 23, 2014

Undergraduate Students Play Key Role As Attendees, Ambassadors At SEC Symposium

Undergraduate students from all SEC universities offer support during the SEC Symposium
Undergraduate students from all SEC universities offer support during the SEC Symposium

By: Sean Cartell
SECU (Twitter: @TheSECU)

Designed to address a significant scholarly issue by utilizing the range of disciplinary strengths of all Southeastern Conference universities, the annual SEC Symposium is an opportunity for collaboration among SEC faculty, administrators and students.

When the three-day SEC Symposium, entitled Prevention of Obesity: Overcoming a 21st Century Public Health Challenge, begins on September 21 at the Hyatt Regency Atlanta, more than one-quarter of the attendees will be undergraduate students.

The academic conference-type event provides a unique opportunity for those undergraduate attendees to learn from experts in their fields of study, interact and network with their peers and with graduate students, and to participate in several roles within the event.

“The SEC Symposium offers our students the opportunity to come together as part of a conference and to share information,” SEC Commissioner Mike Slive said. “When we first started thinking about the Symposium, one of the most important things was to give our students a chance to learn about the educational components of other institutions and to give them a chance to broaden the scope of their own education.”

In addition to attending, undergraduate students also support the SEC Symposium, as each SEC institution was asked to send one student to Atlanta to serve as a volunteer University Ambassador. Along with their assigned duties, University Ambassadors may attend sessions and view poster exhibitions.

Grace Heymsfield, an Honors College Fellow at the University of Arkansas, will serve as a University Ambassador. Heymsfield is also an All-American, NCAA champion and SEC champion and record-holder as a distance runner for the Arkansas track and field and cross country teams.

“I was approached by my professors about the SEC Symposium because of my involvement with the honors college on our campus,” Heymsfield said. “I did my honors thesis on nutrition knowledge of high school students in our area with an emphasis on nutrition education and the potential impact on childhood obesity.”

The opportunity for collaboration, exposure to industry professionals and interacting with other University Ambassadors are all things Heymsfield is looking forward to doing in Atlanta.

“It’s an appropriate topic nationwide and definitely something that’s very relevant to all of the schools in the SEC,” Heymsfield said. “I’m looking forward to hearing about all of the different research. I’m going in with an open mind and I’m excited to learn.”

Like Heymsfield, undergraduate students across the SEC’s 14 institutions are actively engaged in scholarly and community outreach efforts surrounding this year’s SEC Symposium topic of obesity prevention.

Recent Vanderbilt University graduate Brionne Williams, a medicine, health and society major who was a member of the school’s track and field team, created her own organization called FOOD (Facing Our Own Decisions). FOOD began as a class project, and is now a standing organization on campus that teaches fifth and sixth graders to make wise nutritional decisions.

“Our mission became trying to combat childhood obesity through the educational system,” Williams said. “We want to educate students and family to make healthier food and lifestyle choices. We used the models of what we learned in class and applied them to the idea of going into nearby schools and creating awareness about obesity and making better choices.”

Williams learned how prevention of obesity goes beyond just food and exercise choices and may also be impacted by cultural and geographic barriers.

“One of the most surprising things that I learned was how some people really don’t have access to fresh fruits and vegetables and healthy foods in their areas. In some areas, there are only convenience stores and nowhere for a family to get fresh fruits and vegetables without having to take a bus or drive somewhere,” Williams added. “That was the biggest thing I learned because it often reflected in what the kids were bringing to school for lunch.”

Each year, the SEC recognizes the university with the most undergraduate students registered and attending the Symposium with the Excellence in Student Attendance Award, which includes a donation to that university’s general scholarship fund. The University of Florida garnered the inaugural award in 2013.

Limited opportunities to attend the SEC Symposium still remain. A space-permitting registration opportunity will be available on-site at the Hyatt Regency Atlanta beginning at 8 a.m. ET on Sunday, September 21. The cost of attendance for undergraduates is $30. Complete information about on-site registration is available at