Faculty and students come together to push for diversity and inclusion

Associate dean and new initiatives focused on diversity and inclusion at University of Nevada, Reno School of Medicine

Nicole Jacobs and Chris Kloth, both with the Office of Academic Affairs, review diversity and inclusion policy. Photo by James Rutter.


7/17/2017 | By: James Rutter |

Thanks to new efforts by students, and the creation of an Office of Diversity and Inclusion by the University of Nevada, Reno School of Medicine, the medical school is seeing a renewed commitment and push for a diverse student population and inclusive culture.

"The University of Nevada, Reno School of Medicine's mission is to improve the health and well-being of all Nevadans and their communities," said Thomas L. Schwenk, M.D., UNR Med's dean. "During these times of great transition, the value of our mission is particularly important. We strive for a demonstrated commitment to an institutional culture of respect, compassion and diversity."

To help encourage such a culture at the school, UNR Med selected Nicole Jacobs, Ph.D., to lead the efforts of its new Office of Diversity and Inclusion.          

"I've been with the school for nearly 10 years, and I've always pushed, informally, for more cultural competence and diversity," Jacobs said, adding that the new focus has been really exciting, because policies and programs can be affected and can create a real change in the institution.

UNR Med's Standing Search Committee, which Jacobs chairs, is one area where she has seen the impact of the new office.

The committee is in charge of finding candidates for leadership positions within the school's administration. Jacobs and the committee have created what she refers to as "best practices in recruitment," to help bring faculty from diverse backgrounds to leadership roles. She says these best practices are designed as trainable lessons to enlighten recruiters on any unconscious biases they may have.

"The problem isn't usually explicit bias that keeps diverse individuals from entering academia, but it's those assumptions and associations that we might not even know we have, which can get in the way of finding and hiring a more diverse faculty," Jacobs said. "That's why we recently passed a policy that requires members of all search committees to receive the diversity trainings we have developed."

The Office of Diversity and Inclusion has also begun hosting what it calls Diversity Dialogues, which are open forums, held on the third Tuesday of every month, where students, faculty and staff can discuss any number of issues related to diversity and inclusion.

"What we have seen at these forums is a lot of really deep, meaningful, rich conversations about these issues that just weren't being discussed in this way before," Jacobs said.

In addition to the Diversity Dialogues, student-led diversity interest groups recently started a campus-wide conversation by modifying a poem about inclusion and writing lines from it on signs, and then using them in a photo shoot to create a message of solidarity.

Crystal Phares, Class of 2019, is president and cofounder of the LGBTQIA Medical Student Alliance, and the architect of the inclusion poem project. She says that the idea came to her as she witnessed increasing division across the nation.

"As we started seeing what was happening, myself and the other leaders of diversity groups in the med school felt like we had to do something about it," Phares said. "I'd seen this poem circling on social media, and I thought it would be cool to take pictures using portions of it, and then display them in the hallways of UNR Med, the waiting rooms of the Student Outreach Clinic, and maybe even the website."

Phares went to Jacobs with the idea, who raised it for consideration at a faculty leadership meeting.

"We sat around the table and asked ourselves if this kind of public display of diversity as a value was what we as an institution wanted," Jacobs said. "And, the answer was a resounding yes, that this is who we are, that this is what we value, and we are going to defend it."

Beyond public advocacy for diversity and inclusion, some medical students are even working to physically bring a more diverse student population to UNR Med, such as the students of the Latino Medical Student Association (LMSA).

Roberto Lopez-Pacheco, Class of 2017, said he was troubled when he began reading studies on income inequality and its correlation to successful medical students.

"A student who grows up in a typical upper middle class family is nearly 30 times more likely to be a physician than a student from a low income, working class family," Lopez said.

"We want to do something about this. Our goal is to increase the number of academically talented, socioeconomically underserved students in medical school, by providing them with a current medical school student as a mentor, whose goal is to help them improve upon specific areas of their future medical school application."

Jacobs says she is heartened by the level of engagement she and the Office of Diversity and Inclusion are seeing from the school's students, faculty and administration.

"When I first got here, there didn't seem to be much attention paid to diversity in the class room. Today there are 15-20 hours of diversity-based curriculum in the first year alone. We're enhancing outreach efforts to increase the diversity of our applicant pool, and we are working very hard to create a shared consciousness on the values of diversity and inclusion."

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