Diverse Student Bodies in Health Professions

How to Deal Effectively with a Diverse Student Body

People who attend health professions educational institutions come from many different ethnic and cultural backgrounds. In fact, the number of minority students in post-secondary education increases each year in the United States and is expected to continue to increase.

These cultures not only reflect the diverse populations you will encounter in health professions school, they also reflect the diverse population of people you will encounter and care for in the health care field. In fact, health professions educational institutions are now making a commitment to recognize the need to prepare health care professionals with the knowledge and skills essential for culturally competent care. Most textbooks even have a chapter that deals with cultural diversity and its importance in caring for patients in all settings.

When it comes to diversity, you will find it helpful to know several key terms:

  • Culture: A set of beliefs, values, traditions, and behaviors that are shared by a racial, religious, or social group and that are usually passed from generation to generation
  • Cultural awareness: Knowledge of different cultural and ethnic practices and worldviews
  • Cultural sensitivity: The ability to be aware of and accepting of cultures that are different from your own
  • Cultural competence: The ability to interact effectively with people of different cultures

Your degree of cultural awareness will depend on experiences you have in life.

  • What other cultures have you encountered in your life experiences?
  • Are any of your friends from cultural backgrounds or ethnicities different from yours?
  • If so, what customs and beliefs do they have that might be different from your own?

Your ability to answer these questions gives some indication of your degree of cultural awareness.

Although personal interactions are a good way to learn about other cultures, they are not the only way. You can also learn about other cultures through formal and informal education, such as by reading news stories, watching the news or documentary programs, and even watching popular television programs. An important note to remember, however, is to make sure that your cultural awareness is free from cultural stereotypes. Such stereotypes can lead you to make assumptions about people before getting to know them.

“We all should know that diversity makes for a rich tapestry, and we must understand that all the threads of the tapestry are equal in value no matter what their color.”
– Maya Angelou

Understanding the diverse characteristics that make up culture serves as the foundation for cultural sensitivity. Cultural sensitivity means that you think about what you say before you say it, so you can make sure you don’t make offensive remarks to someone of a different cultural or ethnic background.

Although it is almost always a good idea to think before you speak, cultural sensitivity requires that you take that process one step further by examining your own beliefs and making sure that you do not make assumptions about people based on stereotypes and biases.

Adapted from How to Survive and Maybe Even Love Health Professions School: Retention and Career Placement Guide, by Arlene M. Muller, ©2012,  F.A. Davis, Co. All rights reserved.


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