Since 1968, National Hispanic Heritage Month has been recognized by the federal government and celebrated across the United States annually, from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15, to acknowledge the history, culture and contributions of Americans whose ancestry can be traced to over 20 countries in Spain and Latin America. Approximately 60 million people who reside in the U.S. representing approximately 18% of the population, have ancestries connected to these countries.
The University of Nevada, Reno School of Medicine (UNR Med) joins in celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month as part of its commitment to diversity and inclusion, and its ongoing efforts to increase the representation of Hispanics, and other underrepresented groups in health sciences, who serve as health care heroes throughout our community.
Emergent bilinguals are the future for health care equity
The Community of Bilingual English-Spanish Speakers Exploring Issues in Science and Health (CBESS) is a National Institutes of Health (NIH) supported program that seeks to increase the number of bilingual English-Spanish students who pursue paths in science, technology, engineering, math (STEM) and health care careers. The initiative is collaboration between the University’s College of Education & Human Development, Raggio Research Center, School of Community Health Sciences and the School of Medicine.
CBESS engages bilingual high school students across northern Nevada to learn a variety of topics in STEM and health sciences through the lens of bilingualism. “Given that 2-5% of practicing physicians and STEM researchers and educators are bilingual in the region, it is critical to train a future generation of bilingual high school students who can use Spanish as an asset to communicate, educate and perform research that can help our bilingual community,” said Ruben Dagda, Ph.D., associate professor, department of pharmacology, and CBESS co-principle investigator.
“Pre-med pipeline programs and initiatives have been shown to support underrepresented students as they prepare for the competitive medical school admissions process by providing guidance and mentors,” said Tamara Martinez-Anderson, UNR Med director of admissions. “UNR Med is making great strides in training a broader spectrum of future physicians, capable of relating to patients and speaking their language, both literally and figuratively.”
CBESS connects rural Nevada bilingual students to academics and STEM careers
“Many of Nevada’s rural high school students have lower access to STEM resources, transportation and internet, so rural outreach is crucial,” said Dagda.
While CBESS has always included rural Nevada counties in its recruitment strategies, a silver lining to the pandemic was an increase in virtual programming and outreach, which helped grow connections with rural Nevada high schools. Across three cohorts, CBESS has had student participation from Churchill, Douglas, Lyon and Washoe counties, so far.
But the program aims to broaden its reach across even more of the Silver State. “In the next grant cycle, the focus will shift to recruiting almost entirely in rural counties,” said Dagda. “We’re beginning discussions with additional Lyon County schools, and possibly Elko County schools, as UNR Med has clinical resources established in Elko County.”
Promotores build cultural bridges through health education research projects
As a result of the pandemic requiring completely virtual delivery, CBESS redirected its traditional STEM focus, and is instead teaching pandemic-related topics such as microbial spread; vaccine production, importance and hesitancy; health disparities caused by COVID19; and misinformation.
A youth-led group research project is part of the yearlong CBESS experience, exposing high school students to academic teamwork, encouraging active learning and developing critical-thinking, communication and decision-making skills for college preparedness.
All student researchers are “promotores” (ambassadors), who engage with the community by doing research, promoting health education and engaging in citizen science. Many students completed their research projects on pandemic-related health issues affecting northern Nevada’s bilingual communities.
Rose Meza ’21 (neuroscience) is a UNR Med and Nevada Area Health Education Centers (AHEC) Scholar Program outreach project coordinator, as well as a CBESS mentor. She facilitates the overall CBESS experience, providing students with one-on-one guidance meetings, leads group research projects, facilitates virtual scientific lectures and assists with career exploration events.
“The group I led studied the overall effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on undocumented Hispanic immigrants,” said Meza. “They interviewed Hispanic community organizations to gather data and gain perspectives, and their findings showed that the overall impacts of the pandemic resulted in increased stress for undocumented immigrants, largely due to the economic shut down, which caused financial instability.”
Students presented their research results at the end of program, bringing them full circle with gaining a deeper understanding of the scientific process, from developing research questions, to forming and testing hypotheses, and reporting findings to peers and college professors.
CBESS connects secondary to post-secondary education – and the bigger picture
“As a mentor and leadership trainee, CBESS allows me the opportunity to promote diversity across the University and UNR Med and to encourage high school students to embrace their full academic and career potential,” said Meza. “It’s important to power STEM fields with a diverse workforce to strengthen the world of science. Additional perspectives will lead to increases in scientific research and medical breakthroughs. Different cultures coming together to accomplish shared goals is beautiful and powerful.”
Prior to being a CBESS mentor, Meza herself was a beneficiary of campus cultural organizations and attributes them to her successful academic and career path. “The UNR Med Latino Medical Student Association (LMSA) connected me, as an undergraduate student, to medical student mentors, provided academic and career guidance, and introduced me to opportunities,” she said. “All thanks to my mentors, UNR Med medical students Ngantu Le and Majid Khan, I was connected to extraordinary volunteer opportunities, clinical experiences, and resources to prepare for the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT).”
Meza sees involvement in student cultural organizations on campus as a key to increasing diversity efforts at the University, which is making great strides toward the goal of becoming a designated Hispanic-Serving Institution, where Hispanic students make up at least 25% of the fulltime undergraduate student population.
At UNR Med, the growing number of Hispanic undergraduates at the University, combined with outreach and recruitment initiatives and programs such as CBESS, has resulted in a 36% annual increase in the number of Hispanic students applying to UNR Med during the 2020-21 application cycle compared to the prior year. For the last two years, students who identify as Hispanic have comprised 20% of incoming medical students.
“Commitment to diversity starts with engaging in outreach that exposes young people from underrepresented groups to role models and inspiring them,” said Martinez-Anderson. “We know that achieving our vision of a healthy Nevada benefits when we enroll students who are collaborative, resilient and adaptable, and who are committed to delivering, culturally sensitive care to our community.
UNR Med’s Latino Medical Student Association will assist with hosting “Campus con CBESS,” for CBESS participants, in mid-October.
For more information on CBESS, contact Jenica Finnegan, M.A., CBESS program coordinator, at (775) 682-7877 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
For a list of Hispanic Heritage Month events, visit the University events page.