Jenni Averett and Denise Campbell

This is a story about public health and coincidence, and how something as simple as finding a place to sit can make all the difference.

It’s a story that started in August, when Denise Campbell approached a table with an empty seat at the ColoradoSPH at CSU orientation for new students. But it also is a story that started long before that.

First, though, some introductions: Denise Campbell and Jenni Averett are both dietitians, both finishing their first year of MPH studies – Denise in the Health Communication concentration and Jenni in Global Health and Health Disparities. Jenni joined the U.S. Air Force first, after completing her dietetics degree at Brigham Young University.

Her interest in nutrition grew from watching several family members struggle with chronic conditions, and she’d long been interested in the military, so when she read about an Air Force dietetics internship it seemed like the perfect fit. She was commissioned and stationed at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas.

Meanwhile, Denise was learning about health and diet in the Girl Scouts, earning her From Fitness to Fashion and cooking badges, learning about cholesterol and keeping an activity log. During undergrad at the University of Delaware, she took a nutrition class “and it was like fireworks,” she said. “I couldn’t stop reading about it.”

She also had a longtime interest in the military, and she also read about the Air Force dietetics internship. After receiving her commission and five weeks of training in Alabama, she was stationed at Lackland Air Force Base. And this is where Jenni and Denise met, right?

But it isn’t. They were about four years apart. Jenni left the Air Force in 2009, the year Denise started her internship. Almost from day one, though, Denise heard about Jenni. She even followed a similar trajectory, completing the year-long internship in Texas and, like Jenni, moving on to Travis Air Force Base in California.

There, too, she heard about Jenni: “I was starting to feel like I knew her, like she was a friend,” Denise recalled.

Jenni, too, was hearing about then-Lt. Campbell. She visited California to attend a conference with Capt. Amanda Sager, who had supervised both Jenni and Denise, “and on the drive from Sacramento to L.A. she told me about Lt. Campbell,” Jenni said. Denise, however, had just deployed to Afghanistan, so their paths didn’t cross then, either.

That didn’t happen until August, on the morning of new student orientation. Denise and her husband had just moved to Fort Collins from Germany, where she’d been stationed, and Jenni had already been in Fort Collins with her family for several years. But neither of them knew that. Denise was just looking for a place to sit.

“May I sit here?” she asked Jenni, who of course said yes.

Because it seemed like the friendly thing to do, Denise glanced at Jenni’s nametag. Something clicked. She’d seen photos of Jenni, and recalling those, together with the name… Are you…?

“I might have gotten loud,” Denise remembered with a laugh.

They’d felt like they’d known each other, like they’d been friends, for years and here they were, meeting for the first time.

“For me, that really sealed the decision that this is where I’m supposed to be,” Denise said, and Jenni added, “It made me that much more excited about the program after I met her.”

Aside from everything they already had in common, they both learned they shared a passion for nutrition as a preventative tool and have had several classes together since that day in orientation.

Whoever gets to class first saves the other one a seat, of course, because that’s what friends do.