While the University of Arizona is known for making giant mirrors to look out into space, including some on the James Webb telescope, the UArizona Health Sciences Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (OEDI) turns a figurative mirror to UArizona Health Sciences students, faculty and staff to make sure they reflect the communities they serve in southern Arizona and the Southwest.
The mission of the Health Sciences OEDI, which was formed in 2015, is to help UArizona Health Sciences colleges and centers increase workforce diversity, expand knowledge of and sensitivity to social and cultural factors that influence health and health care, and foster a workplace climate of inclusion and belonging.
“Our office is charged by the senior vice president for the University of Arizona Health Sciences to support pipeline programs and provide trainings and education that allow us to advance equity and inclusion,” said Francisco A. Moreno, MD, associate vice president for equity, diversity and inclusion at UArizona Health Sciences. “We support and help lead a collaborative group of leaders in equity, diversity and inclusion from the five colleges to share best practices, identify what metrics to track, and keep each other informed, supported and trained.”
Health Sciences OEDI hosted more than 40 events for faculty, staff and students during fiscal year 2021-22. In partnership with the five UArizona Health Sciences colleges, the office offers several programs for students of all levels, from high school to those pursuing advanced medical degrees. These programs support students from economically and educationally disadvantaged backgrounds in pursuing education and careers as researchers and health care professionals.
The UArizona Health Sciences PRIDE Health Equity Alliance and LGBTQ+ Safe Zone were created by the OEDI team to support and provide a safe, accepting, inclusive and respectful environment for the LGBTQIA+ community and allies. OEDI sponsors events such as the Dia de Los Muertos celebration, the UArizona Health Sciences Wildcat Pride Awards, the Annual LGBTQIA+ National Symposium and Community Fair, and a traditional blessing and honoring ceremony for incoming and graduating Native American students.
“We share knowledge and education of different cultures to increase cultural sensitivity and cultural intelligence in health care,” explained Lydia Kennedy, senior director of the UArizona Health Sciences Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion. “We attract historically excluded groups and LGBTQIA+ with a focus on eliminating health disparities and creating health equity for all.”
To build a pipeline of diverse students entering research and health care professions, OEDI hosts five structured summer programs including: Med-Start, a six-week summer academic enrichment program focused on improving access to information and resources for high school juniors interested in health care professions; Border Latino and American Indian Summer Exposure to Research (BLAISER), which addresses health disparities in Arizona’s ethnically diverse communities; and a summer internship program for undergraduate and graduate students called Focusing Research on the Border Area (FRONTERA), providing hands-on research on public health disparities in the U.S. and Mexico border region.
Health Sciences OEDI supports programs for bilingual students, including Fostering and Achieving Culture Equity and Sensitivity in the Health Professions (FACES) Conversantes and the Bilingual Medical Spanish Distinction Track, a UArizona Health Sciences strategic initiative.
FACES Conversantes provides bilingual Spanish-speaking pre-med students with training and volunteer opportunities as medical interpreters in health care facilities in southern Arizona. The bilingual distinction track is designed to enhance the medical communication skills of students who have intermediate to advanced proficiency levels in Spanish with the goal of graduating physicians who are competent to work as bilingual health care providers.
“The medical Spanish programming empowers bilingual students at different stages of their training to continue their education by offering elective and credit-bearing classes,” said Alejandra Zapien-Hidalgo, MD, MPH, director of Bilingual Medical Spanish and assistant professor in Family and Community Medicine at the College of Medicine – Tucson. “It is important to show our students, early on their career, the positive impact they can have in our community.”
Attracting and supporting a diverse faculty, staff and student cohort is only part of the mission. Through their lecture series, cultural events and training, the OEDI team strives to not only bring an awareness of equity, diversity and inclusion to the UArizona Health Sciences community, but also to make everyone an active participant in integrating these tenants into every aspect of their roles as faculty, staff and students.
“It is not enough to just be open-minded and willing to accept people who are different,” Kennedy said. “We must challenge the status quo and increase awareness, knowledge, and skills of dominant groups to champion, appreciate and support those who differ to create environments that are supportive, equitable, compassionate, respectful and inclusive. Learning from experts and practicing to perfection are the keys to developing competence and equity.”
Health Sciences OEDI also has a mental health counselor on staff, Jenna Teso, DBH, LCSW, who operates a Program for Mental Health Wellness, providing free counseling services to Health Sciences students as well as mental wellness workshops and trainings. The program provides services that address the unique needs of Health Sciences students and promotes diversity, inclusion and mental health wellness.
In OEDI’s 2021-2022 fiscal year report, Michael D. Dake, MD, senior vice president for the University of Arizona Health Sciences, emphasized his commitment to promoting health equity and addressing the needs of underserved communities through increasing the diversity of health care professionals and creating the next generation of compassionate and culturally sensitive care providers.
“As we educate the next generation of health care leaders, the Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion fosters a climate of inclusion where all members of Health Sciences and our partnering communities contribute to our larger goal of increasing excellence and solving health disparities,” Dr. Dake wrote. “As researchers, physician-scientists, staff and students, we must change the systems and narratives that have resulted in ongoing racial and ethnic health disparities. We must improve the cultural proficiency of health care providers and programs.”
OEDI staff say that fostering an environment of equity, diversity, inclusion, justice and belonging isn’t just their mission, it is the responsibility of everyone at UArizona Health Sciences.
“We are here to support everybody’s efforts towards equity, diversity and inclusion,” Dr. Moreno said. “We’re just a group of folks leveraging the generosity and commitment of faculty, students and community members who are contributing to the larger mission. This is everybody’s work.”