Pre-Orientation Program Welcomes Students to the Neighborhood

For four days in August, 27 students from P&S and 10 College of Dental Medicine students immersed themselves in the history, culture, and contemporary issues of Washington Heights during a pre-orientation program called Dígame Bienvenidos. The program was launched last year by P&S students Jemma Benson’18 and Christopher Clayton’18 to acquaint incoming students with the community where they will live, learn, and give back.

“People who choose medical or dental school are hungry to do some good. They want to develop bonds with the people they will be caring for,” says Ms. Benson, who worked with Mexican immigrants in Philadelphia through Haverford College’s Center for Peace and Global Citizenship before enrolling in P&S.

This hunger to connect with the community was evident in last year’s survey of incoming students, in which many cited enthusiasm for the Washington Heights community as an important reason for choosing to come to Columbia.

Partnering with the popular Dígame Spanish language and cultural immersion summer program for rising second-year medical students, Ms. Benson and Mr. Clayton created a new program to welcome incoming first-year medical and dental students to the predominantly Dominican and Central American community of Washington Heights.

“We wanted new students to have the opportunity to learn about the history, culture, and vitality of the neighborhood that surrounds the medical campus,” says Mr. Clayton, a Fulbright scholar and Duke University graduate who studied traditional medicine in Bolivia and Ecuador.

With a grant from the Steve Miller Foundation, which funds projects that align with the late educator’s passion for humanism in medical education, Ms. Benson and Mr. Clayton launched Dígame Bienvenidos in 2015 with 15 P&S students and one dental student. Student response to the program was overwhelmingly positive, according to a post-program survey.

This year’s program, organized by 2015 participants Tina Roa’19 and Benjamin Wang, a dental student, began with a neighborhood scavenger hunt and an outing to Fort Tryon Park and the Cloisters. That evening, Stephen Nicholas, MD, associate dean for admissions at P&S, hosted a welcome reception at a local restaurant. Over the next few days, students visited community health sites and local attractions, attended lectures, and participated in activities designed to highlight the cultural heritage of Washington Heights and spark discussion.

Robert Snyder, PhD, author of “Crossing Broadway: Washington Heights and the Promise of New York,” talked about the history of the neighborhood before the students set off on a walking tour that included the restored High Bridge.

CUMC faculty lectured on topics such as linguistic competency in the clinic, health disparities in the community, and the nexus of social justice and medicine.

Speakers included Wilson Quezada, MD, assistant professor of medicine, who grew up in Washington Heights; Luz Aguirre, DMD, assistant professor of dental medicine; and Hetty Cunningham, MD, assistant professor of pediatrics.

Students also learned to dance New York-style salsa, visited the Fort Washington Men’s Shelter, and sampled Dominican, Mexican, and Salvadoran food from some of the neighborhood’s most popular restaurants.

This fall, some Dígame Bienvenidos participants led classmates on a neighborhood walking tour during a Foundations of Clinical Medicine session devoted to experiencing and appreciating the Washington Heights community.

Dígame Bienvenidos is part of the Global is Local program created by the IFAP Global Health Program and directed by Ana Esteban, MD. The program includes Dígame, a summer language and cultural immersion program; Ni Hao, a summer Chinese language and cultural immersion program; Dígame Más, a school-year student organization that focuses on the culture, language, and health care needs of Washington Heights and Latino immigrants; and a two-semester Spanish interpreter course for students.