Getting to know you

Valentina Ayala works in the simulation lab
College of Dentistry student Valentina Ayala works in the simulation lab. Ayala is a dual citizen of the United States and Venezuela, where she also attended dental school. (Photo by Jesse S. Jones)

In the South Florida community where Magda AbdelFattah grew up, she calls her mother’s friends her aunts and her father’s friends her uncles. She’s as close to them as she is to her blood relatives, who live thousands of miles away in Egypt.

AbdelFattah’s parents came to UF from Cairo in the 1970s. Both dentists already, they took part in a UF program for foreign-trained dentists and stayed in the United States to practice. And like many families whose relatives are miles away, they found a new family, a community of people with the same culture. So even though AbdelFattah grew up in America, Egyptian customs and traditions are a big part of her life. Little things, like dropping everything if a family friend needs help. When her mother was sick a few years ago, a friend cooked dinner for her family every night.

Magda AbdelFattah and classmates provide a free lunch for homeless people in Gainesville
College of Dentistry student Magda AbdelFattah and classmates provide a free lunch for homeless people in Gainesville. (Photo by Jesse S. Jones)

“It is like having the customs and culture of an Arabic country in America,” says AbdelFattah, a second-year UF College of Dentistry student. “It is a country within a country, but you definitely assimilate here and there.”
Yet, there are many things about Arabic culture people find mysterious and don’t try to understand. Her classmates are open-minded, as are most people, but she knows she has been stereotyped before and has seen reactions people sometimes have to her parents’ accents and the head cover her mother wears. Sometimes it upsets her, but she focuses on what she can gain, instead.

“Even if people don’t want to learn from you, you can learn from them,” she says. “It is important for us to learn from each other, especially in health care, because we are dealing with patients of all different backgrounds. If we understand others more, we will be more comfortable and make our patients more comfortable.”

To some, the word “diversity” still conjures images of checkboxes, of having the right gender and racial mix among students, faculty and staff because it’s the right thing to do. Ensuring equality and equal opportunity are still critically important, but throughout UF&Shands, leaders are looking to diversity for the benefits it can bring to the entire institution. And the need for and importance of diversity goes far beyond black and white.

“We are not going to be all we can be unless we are a diverse group and we draw out all those rich experiences that make us all different and channel them in a way that makes the organization better,” says Michael L. Good, M.D., dean of the College of Medicine.

The more minds, the better

To College of Dentistry student Valentina Ayala, diversity boils down to this fact: You have to be able to work with all types of people, and nowhere is this more apparent than health care.

“Your brain is like a parachute; if you don’t open it, it doesn’t work,” says Ayala, who grew up in Venezuela. “Diversity helps you open your mind, it gives you more tools for problem-solving and helps you grow as a person.”
This is a universitywide point of view. In August, the UF’s President’s Council on Diversity released a Diversity Action Plan, outlining goals and objectives to ensure UF is broadly diverse. Broad diversity means students, faculty and staff benefit from the perspectives of people who are not only of different races and gender identities, but also from different socioeconomic backgrounds and sexual orientation, and those who have disabilities and different talents.

“Diversity is not simply saying we have a black kid, a white kid and a Hispanic kid in the same room. If all those kids have similar backgrounds, for example, two parent-households with parents who are both physicians, then the goals of diversity are not realized,” says Chris Newman, a fourth-year College of Medicine student. “You want people who actually come from different walks of life and who have different experiences and perspectives so that you are not simply filling checkboxes, but actually obtaining the inherent values of true diversity.”

The benefits show up in classrooms across campus. Venita Sposetti, D.M.D., dean of education for the College of Dentistry, remembers one situation when a class was discussing ethical issues related to Medicaid. A student spoke up about growing up on Medicaid and how difficult it was to find dental care.

“You could have heard a pin drop because she had a real story to tell,” Sposetti says. “She was able to bring the discussion to a different level, and it wasn’t hypothetical. It was real life. It was us. That’s what happens when you have a diverse student body. It is what you bring to the table as the person you are.”

In short, the more types of minds, the better. And considering how global society is becoming, diversity is not just an ideal scenario but necessary to ensure UF students are prepared for the future, says David Lopez, M.S., director of UF Institutional Equity and Diversity.

“We live in very small world, and we need to know how each other thinks,” he says. “You don’t have to become an expert, but you need to understand their reality is different than yours.”

Across the academic health center, colleges are striving toward diversity in a variety of ways. The College of Veterinary Medicine, for example, likes to have a mix of undergraduate majors because students with different backgrounds are likely to pursue different fields.

The College of Public Health and Health Professions recently launched a committee focused on looking at diversity in the broadest sense. The goal is to increase efforts that span across the college’s education and research initiatives, namely in health disparities related to diversity and addressing them through service activities.

In the College of Dentistry, a new student group formed to focus on diversity and increase cultural competency, which could help students address oral health disparities after graduation.

In health care, diversity is crucial to alleviating disparities. The physician workforce, for example, does not represent the population it serves, and in 2009 the U.S. Surgeon General called for an increase in minority physicians. Nationally, about 6 percent of physicians are black or Hispanic while 28 percent of the overall population belongs to these groups.

Rebecca Pauly, M.D., UF associate vice president for health affairs for equity and diversity, spoke last year to the Alachua County Medical Society about transgendered patients, who often face health disparities because they don’t know where to turn for fear of discrimination. Most physicians have had little experience treating transgendered patients, but simple steps can often help these patients feel welcome, such as placing a rainbow symbol in the clinic or changing forms so patients have more options for marital status and gender, Pauly says.

“In any patient-physician relationship, it comes down to active listening. It’s important to have knowledge and experience, but active listening is the anchor to the relationship,” she says. “If you can identify your own biases, modify them and become more educated, that goes a long way.”

Diversity equals excellence

In recent years, the College of Medicine’s commitment to diversity has emerged in a number of ways. The easy thing to look at, of course, is numbers. Last year’s class boasted the highest number of underrepresented minorities in the college’s history.

Dr. Brian Hoh, a UF neurosurgeon, mentors fourth-year medical student Chris Newman
Dr. Brian Hoh, a UF neurosurgeon, mentors fourth-year medical student Chris Newman. Newman has chosen neurosurgery as his specialty.
But perhaps more important are the administrative changes that have occurred, and the promise they pose for the future. The college’s Office of Minority Affairs, which has long played a lead role recruiting minority students and helping them be successful, was renamed the Office for Diversity and Health Equity and the number of assistant deans working in the office has doubled to four. Donna Parker, M.D., assistant dean for diversity and health equity, says the name change better reflects the office’s goals, which are to help the college create a more diverse physician workforce.

A year-and-a-half ago, Good asked department of emergency medicine chairman Joseph Adrian Tyndall, M.D., to create and lead a college-level Diversity Committee focused on developing a strategic plan that places diversity at the center of the college’s missions. The committee is in its infancy, Tyndall says, but one goal is to develop a path to help departments and faculty members build diversity at a grassroots level, from developing relationships with local schools to mentoring.

“It has to become part of the lifeblood of faculty,” Tyndall says. “You have to think about it from a grassroots level. How can each of us as faculty members impact diversity within the institution?”

The needs are many. More students from diverse backgrounds need to enter medicine, and for this, Tyndall hopes to encourage the large number of UF undergraduate premedical students to continue their path. Eventually, efforts like these, coupled with continuing to foster an inclusive culture, should help lead to a more diverse student body and faculty.

Good also notes that diversity is much more than gender, race and ethnicity. For example, the college is developing an admissions track for students from rural and underserved areas who want to go back and serve these communities.

Another area of focus is increasing diversity among residents and fellows. Aside from recruitment efforts, the college also works to make residents feel included. The Office of Health Equity and Diversity holds a reception for underrepresented housestaff members, who are often so busy they do not get a chance to meet.

To Good, these initiatives are essential to the success of the college.

“My focus on diversity comes from a belief that groups make better decisions than individuals, and diverse groups make the best decisions,” he says. “I was really influenced by ‘The Wisdom of Crowds’ by James Surowiecki. Basically, the premise is that a diverse group, where individuals are able to freely express views and opinions, will always make better decisions than individual experts, which is kind of a challenging thing at a major medical school where we pride ourselves on our experts.”

He points to tumor boards as an example in clinical practice where a professionally diverse group of specialists recommend patient treatment regimens. Most believe the recommendation of the group is better than the recommendations of a single expert.

A few good men

College of Nursing student Hyochol “Brian” Ahn teaches nursing students at Shands at UF
College of Nursing student Hyochol “Brian” Ahn teaches nursing students at Shands at UF. Ahn, a doctoral student from Korea, left his career in engineering to pursue nursing. (Photo by Maria Belen Farias)
Across the nation, colleges of nursing have been trying to increase gender diversity for years. It’s a profession historically dominated by women, but slowly and surely, more men are joining the fold.

“We feel like the more diversity of backgrounds and perspectives we bring is only going to enhance our profession,” said Sharon Bradley, D.N.P., assistant dean for student affairs. “We don’t have a lot of men in our profession, and we want to change that. We have some really good male role models on our faculty.”

At first, Hyochol “Brian” Ahn, M.S., M.S.N., A.R.N.P., just wanted to learn more about biology and physiology so he could be a better engineer. A doctoral student in the UF College of Engineering, Ahn already had a firm grasp on the physical science — after all, he’d been a computer programmer for 10 years in Korea before pursuing his graduate education at UF. But he wanted to know more about medicine, so he enrolled in a class … and then another class.

This quest led him to the College of Nursing’s accelerated Bachelor of Science in Nursing program, which allows students who already hold bachelor’s degrees in other fields to earn their nursing degrees in 14 months. Now a licensed nurse practitioner and doctoral candidate in the College of Nursing, Ahn feels he found his calling in nursing, a field that allows him to teach students, care for patients and pursue his research.

“When I changed my major to nursing, everyone liked me,” Ahn says. “Everyone said ‘You can do it.’”

Ahn, who is preparing to defend his dissertation, plans to stay in academia after he earns his Ph.D. Although, he doesn’t quite consider himself a role model for aspiring male nurses or international students, yet.

“While I was a student, I always felt like our male faculty members were good role models,” Ahn says. “I felt like if they can do it I can do it. Now I am teaching and there are several international students as well as male students, I always say that, ‘If I can do it, you can do it, your English is much better than mine!’ I don’t know if I am a role model, but I can offer at least some encouragement.”

(Article reprinted from the February 2012 The Post.)