Se habla español: UC program trains nursing, social work students to connect with Spanish speakers

CINCINNATI - A month after its approval, a new certificate program to train bilingual nurses and social workers is gaining interest from students at the University of Cincinnati.

Spanish for Social Workers and Health Care Services was approved by the McMicken College of Arts and Sciences faculty senate in September.

“There are not enough bilingual social workers," said Ligia Gomez, certificate director and assistant professor of romance languages and literatures at UC. "The Hispanic population has been growing in the past 10 to 15 years."

In fact, the Hispanic population in Greater Cincinnati more than doubled between the 2000 U.S. Census and the 2010 count-- from 25,000 to 55,000.

While graduates with the certificate can work for health care agencies across the U.S., the program’s emphasis on building relationships makes it optimal for staffing local health care agencies, Gomez said.

Seeking health care

Hispanics typically go to city hospitals when seeking specialized health care services, said Gomez, who worked as a psychologist in Colombia before coming to the U.S. For general services, Hispanics tend to prefer small clinics, where they can build relationships with health care providers.

“With this population, the relationships they make with people are very, very important,” Gomez said, adding that communication is key in building trust between the care provider and the patient.

Without clear verbal communication, a Hispanic patient will be less likely to trust the health care provider, preventing a relationship from being built and reducing the likelihood the individual will return to the agency for future medical concerns, Gomez said.

Hispanics who are new arrivals in the U.S. often maintain a low income status and have a limited understanding of English. Many cannot read or write in English or Spanish.

Those who cannot communicate through reading and writing must rely on verbal interactions. If a language barrier inhibits communication, a patient may not be fully informed about the services provided at a clinic.

“We are working with a group of people who are disenfranchised, under-resourced and underserved," said Christine Lottman,  associate professor of social work at UC.

Certificate requirements

The Spanish for Social Workers and Health Care Services certificate is earned in conjunction with a bachelor’s degree and requires students to take 22 credit hours of program-specific and elective courses.

Most students can expect to take five semesters to complete the certificate.

“(This program) is really needed. I have seen members of my own family struggle with it,” said Katia Diaz, a junior Spanish major who is pursuing the new certificate.

While a basic Spanish language course is a pre-requisite, program-specific courses incorporate language, culture and medical training.

The certificate program is made up of three components:

  1. class work
  2. service learning
  3. an optional study abroad experience.

“The classes all have a level of service involved," Lottman said. She added that the ability to converse in a patient's first language is important, as is a grasp of cultural issues. 

Even if a social worker or healthcare provider is not fluent in Spanish, having an understanding of a patient’s culture can enable him or her to work at a more effective level.

While taking courses, students are paired with agencies that serve the Hispanic community. Students are required to work with the agencies and write reflections about their experiences.

By working in the community, students gain experience while building relationships with potential employers, Gomez said.

“Any situation where the language the health care provider is speaking is not a patient’s first language, (the provider) would have to be careful to make sure there is a complete understanding,” said Joe Kelley, media relations manager for TriHealth, which unites the services of Bethesda and Good Samaritan Hospital.

TriHealth employs multiple individuals who are fluent in Spanish, as well as interpreters.

“We certainly would consider (hiring someone with the certificate), if the candidate is the right person for the position. We‘re very interested in learning more about the program,” Kelley said.

Next page: Spring break in Nicaragua

Over spring break, students in the certificate program will have an opportunity to experience home stays in Nicaragua for an immersive experience in the culture, Lottman said.

Students will identify a population they would like to work with in Nicaragua and then design and implement a program to serve the population through Viva Nicaragua! The organization describes its mission as facilitating "cross-cultural learning by recruiting motivated individuals to participate in experiential  learning programs."

“It’s a pretty full immersion for them when they go down there,” Lottman said.

Those who choose not to participate in the study abroad experience can participate in an alternative service learning experience, similar to an internship with a local agency.

Providing career opportunities

Students who earn the Spanish for Social Workers and Health Care Services certificate will be eligible for careers with a variety of agencies, including children’s protective services, job and family services and Head Start programs, Lottman said.

Some graduates may find work opportunities as healthare providers in hospitals. Hospital social work, however, often requires a master’s degree, Lottman said.

For students like Diaz, the new certificate program provides an opportunity to work while pursuing her degree.

With roots in Cuba, Diaz wants to earn a doctorate degree to teach Spanish at the college level. However, with six-year-old twins to raise and a husband who is also in college, her immediate goal is a career that allows her to help people communicate.

“When you are fluent in the language, all you need is the training,” she said.

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