OXFORD, Miss. – Although she grew up less than an hour from the University of Mississippi‘s Oxford campus, Kathy Knight never thought she would teach there, much less end up with the pleasure of teaching nutrition to more than 15,000 students over 36 years before her upcoming retirement in May.
Hired in 1985, Knight has worked with her faculty and staff colleagues to transform what was then a small Department of Home Economics that served only undergraduate students into the Department of Nutrition and Hospitality Management that offers bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degree programs.
“Between 1995 and 2014, the department’s undergraduate enrollment grew from about 125 students in eight emphasis areas to having the sixth-largest undergraduate enrollment on campus in 2011, about 450 students in four emphasis areas,” Knight said. “We also completely revised the curricula for both dietetics and hospitality management.”
One of Knight’s greatest joys is teaching students from majors across campus who have to take nutrition courses as a part of their curriculum. She has even seen her share of those students switch majors to dietetics and nutrition when they found the passion for nutrition, similar to her experience while taking her first nutrition course at Ole Miss under Jeanette Phillips, former chair of the department.
Phillips later hired Knight as an assistant professor.
“I took Dr. Phillips’ nutrition class, the same nutrition class that I’m teaching this semester, and I fell in love with it,” Knight recalled. “I had also done 4-H growing up, and food and nutrition was one of my content areas.
“Food was always a big part of my family’s life. We had a farm and Daddy raised Black Angus. We had a garden. There were catfish in the pond, and we had chickens and fresh eggs. I knew about good food and what that meant – the power of that.”
Her love of food and nutrition is paralleled only by her love of teaching.
“I love that feeling when you can see that the light goes on in a student’s mind as they begin to grasp how this knowledge either affirms or contrasts with their previous knowledge or beliefs,” she said. “There is so much information out there about nutrition.
“Often, students come into class with a whole set of knowledge that may be totally false. In the food preparation classes, often the opposite is true because many of our students haven’t done a lot of cooking before.”
Early in her career, Knight never thought she was very good at research, but teaching, research and service were required of her as a tenure-track faculty member.
“Once I started do research in my favorite area – nutrition education for children – then it became fun,” Knight said. “I began to see research in terms of who I could help instead of as a chore that needed to be checked off a list.”
From 2009 to 2013, with funding from the Delta Health Alliance and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, Knight was director of Eating Good … and Moving Like We Should, a school-based nutrition intervention program in the Mississippi Delta and north Mississippi. The program provided nutrition education materials, started school gardens and procured physical education supplies for 27 schools in nine counties in the Mississippi Delta.
With this project, earlier food service research and their latest project with the Mississippi Center for Obesity Research at the UM Medical Center, Knight and her colleagues have secured more than $1.6 million in external research funding.
“I hope that someday, this curriculum will be taught in every school, but I am going to have to leave it to my younger colleagues to get that going,” she said.
From 2011 to 2014, Knight served as interim chair of the Department of Nutrition and Hospitality Management. During this time, the undergraduate dietetics and nutrition program was reaccredited by the Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics and the undergraduate hospitality management program was first accredited by the Accreditation Commission for Programs in Hospitality Management.
During her tenure as interim chair, Knight wrote the department’s initial application for and received permission to develop Ph.D. programs in nutrition and hospitality management, the department celebrated its 100th anniversary, and a departmental cookbook, “Are You Ready? 100 Years of Family, Friends, and Football,” was published.
Knight is a registered dietitian and certified weight management specialist with the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. She has been a member of the academy since 1984 and was named its South Central Region’s Outstanding Dietetics Educator in 2018.
She is also a recipient of the School of Applied Sciences’ Thomas A. Crowe Outstanding Faculty Award.
She is especially proud of the book she and colleague Laurel Lambert, an associate professor of nutrition and hospitality management, published, “Food Preparation: A Laboratory Manual” (Kendall Hunt, 2017), which is in its second edition.
“I was thrilled when Kathy asked me to co-author a food preparation manual for our foods laboratory,” Lambert said. “We both enjoy cooking, and the only thing better than cooking is teaching students to enjoy cooking, or at least have an appreciation for it.
“Knowing I was working with Kathy, I too would learn a tremendous amount. Kathy has taught food lab classes since she was a graduate student. We have all told her she needs to write a book with all of her funny stories and experiences in teaching foods labs. With love of cooking and teaching, what better way to blend your two passions (than) into one educational foods manual?”
Melinda Valliant, the department’s chair, was a student of Knight’s between 1986 and ’88.
“In every class, she cared about the students and their experiences in her class and presented material in a way that made you want to learn – she always interjected humor,” Valliant said.
“Today, Dr. Knight is committed to the success of NHM and offers guidance and support to faculty of all levels, particularly young faculty. She offers to edit abstracts, papers and grant applications with no expectation of being included; gives constructive feedback in a manner that is not condescending or threatening; and genuinely makes being a part of NHM fun and welcoming.”
Valliant’s favorite memories of Knight are the poems that she writes for individuals at certain milestones.
“I frequently read through the one she wrote for me when I received tenure and promotion, and each time I do, I get teary-eyed,” Valliant said. “Her thoughtful wit and uncanny memory result in poems that take the listener down memory lane.”
Knight makes everyone in the department feel welcome and important and offers the same guidance and support to each individual, she said.
“She is a ‘we’ versus ‘me’ member and her actions of those that demonstrate that she is thinking of the department over her own personal benefit,” Valliant said. “I am honored to have had the opportunity to work with Kathy Knight and to call her a friend.
“Her shoes will never be filled and her dedication to UM won’t be forgotten because of how many lives, including mine, that she has enriched.”
To celebrate Knight’s retirement, supporters can donate to the Knight-Alias Scholarship Fund, a fund started by one of her former students, Schaler Alias, that Knight has been working to match since its inception. Knight intends the funds to be used for student travel so that they can attend professional conferences.
“It is so important for students to be able to connect with their colleagues from across the nation,” she said.
For more information about the Knight-Alias Scholarship Fund Ignite Campaign, visit http://umfoundation.com/aliasknight.