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Nursing, education and social work students observe diverse cultures in Fresno

March 9, 2012

 Fresno Immersion

Nursing, social work and education students learned about the Hmong/Southeast Asian and Latino cultures through partnerships with the Fresno Center for New Americans, the Clovis Unified School District and many other service agencies in the Fresno region during their two-week immersion project in Fresno, Calif.
EAU CLAIRE — When Randi Winchester signed on for a two-week immersion project in Fresno, Calif., the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire junior was set on someday becoming a social worker in a high school.

After shadowing social workers at a hospice, visiting a substance abuse treatment center for women, and seeing how an advocacy organization supports the Latino, Southeast Asian and Hmong populations, Winchester is more certain than ever that she wants a career in social work. But she no longer knows the specific path she will follow once she earns her social work degree.

"We were asked numerous times during our trip what we saw as our future careers," said Winchester, Racine. "At one point, instead of saying high school social worker, I said, 'After hearing all the possibilities that I have in this field, I actually have no idea.'"

Exposing social work, nursing and education majors to real-world settings that are different from those they've experienced before helped expand the students' view of their chosen fields and helped them understand how closely the three disciplines must work together to create positive change, said Ka Vang, a clinical instructor of social work and one of the three UW-Eau Claire faculty members who planned and participated in the immersion trip.

"The idea was to allow students to experience a seamless community working collaboratively together to provide services for the community," Vang said of the trip's goals. "Students had an opportunity to see firsthand how three disciplines work together to provide services for diverse populations living in Fresno. This experience also helped build the students' cultural awareness and interprofessional and intercultural communication skills."

Twenty-four UW-Eau Claire students participated in the two-week immersion in northern California. The project was led by Vang, Dr. Deborah Pattee, assistant professor of education studies, and Dr. Cheryl Lapp, professor of nursing.

Students learned about the Hmong/Southeast Asian and Latino cultures through partnerships with the Fresno Center for New Americans, the Clovis Unified School District, the Fresno Public Health Department and many other service agencies in the Fresno region that were preselected for student experiences in the central valley region. The partnerships allowed the students to talk with educators, social workers and nurses; shadow professionals; and participate in cultural events, including the United States' largest Hmong New Year celebration.

"This has been a life-changing experience for me, for the better," said Hannah Ortscheid, a senior nursing major from Wausau. "As a nurse, I will encounter different types of people from different cultures. I have a better understanding of different cultures and now know better how to interact and care for these patients. This trip reminded me to never assume anything about anyone, and that respect is something that goes far in any culture."

The nursing students who joined in the immersion trip are registered nurses who are working toward a bachelor's degree in nursing, Lapp said. They understand the nursing profession, but they wanted to learn more about population-based health care needs, as well as non-hospital based programs that help address the needs of diverse populations, she said.

The nursing students spent time visiting hospices, adult day care centers, rural health clinics and other agencies, as well as meeting with public and correctional health nursing professionals, Lapp said. They learned how various factors — ranging from smog to cultural practices to poverty — influence the health needs of different populations, she said.

"Many of these students want to go into public health nursing," Lapp said. "This experience exposed them to kinds of nursing they didn't know about before. They also will definitely view working with professionals in other helping professions differently."

Sophomores Jessica Lindblom, an art education major from Spooner, and Dessa Bell, an education major from Reedsburg, were among the education majors who spent time working in Clovis schools, which have significant Hmong and Latino populations. They observed, taught lessons and interacted with students and teachers in middle and high schools.

Working with students whose first language is not English taught them the importance of patience and the need to use multiple strategies to teach a single lesson, Bell said.

"I learned that I need to be prepared to work with kids who learn in different ways and at difference paces," Bell said. "The kids in one classroom could have many different learning styles. I had to change what I was doing as I moved from student to student or class to class."

 Fresno Immersion
Twenty-four UW-Eau Claire students participating in a two-week immersion project in Fresno, Calif., gather by a new General Vang Pao and Plain of Jars monument. As part of the immersion experience, the students attended the largest Hmong New Year celebration in the United States.
Lindblom said the trip taught her the importance of understanding the culture norms of the populations she will teach. Without that understanding, a teacher can do or say something to offend — rather than motivate — a student, she said.

For example, Lindblom said she helped in a high school photography class that included several pregnant Hmong students who could not work in a dark room. Lindblom adapted her thinking and teaching because she understands that the Hmong culture values large families so many in the Hmong community marry and begin families at young ages.

"As a teacher, I will need to understand cultural practices and adapt my teaching," Lindblom said. "It's their culture; it's not something we should judge. We just had to figure out ways to teach those students in a different way."

Winchester said she was surprised by the number and variety of agencies that work on behalf of diverse populations in the Fresno area, and she was fascinated by the stories of why and how those agencies were created. While all were impressive, she was most touched by the people she met at a substance abuse treatment center.

The founder and owner of the Spirit of Woman talked with the students at length about the center's mission to help mothers beat addictions, get back on their feet, and become healthy and effective mothers, Winchester said.

"This place was by far the most influential place I went," Winchester said. "It opened my eyes to the need to help women fight an awful disease and drug problems. These women go through treatment with their children and get mental health assistance while in the program. It was very inspirational and motivating."

Several students said shadowing social workers at a hospice was especially meaningful.

"Seeing social workers make the last months of a person's life as comfortable and enjoyable as possible was motivational," Fischer said. "It was inspiring to see their passion and desire to serve others. The whole experience solidified that I want to be a social worker."

The immersion experience left senior Alethia Moua, a senior social work major from Eau Claire, thinking more seriously about focusing her career in hospice work.

"The hospice center was an enriching experience," Moua said. "I found the staff of social workers, psychologists, nurse and volunteers to be extremely wonderful to be around. They had so much passion, dedication, empathy and warmth toward their work and their patients."

Enhancing the students' understanding of the ties among the education, nursing and social work professions was an important part of the experience, Vang said. The students saw the value of those connections in real-world situations many times during the immersion project.

For example, the client of a social worker the students were shadowing became very ill and had to be taken to the emergency room, Vang said. As the crisis unfolded, a UW-Eau Claire nursing student was in the ER with the patient and medical personnel, and a UW-Eau Claire social work student was in the waiting room with the social worker and the patient's family. Afterward, the students were able to talk about what was happening in the ER and in the waiting room, providing different perspectives from the same crisis, she said.

"Seeing how nursing, education and social work are so interconnected was powerful," said T. Benjamin Fischer, a senior social work and Spanish major from Wausau. "I hadn't realized how much I, as a social worker, will rely on teachers and nurses to serve my community. I learned so much in Fresno that I would never have learned in the classroom by having the experience versus hearing or reading about it."

Pattee said the experience also helped faculty broaden their thinking.

"This experience changed me," Pattee said. "It opened my eyes even more to the importance of interdisciplinary teaching. When thinking about course content for teacher education, we have to include social work and nursing."

This year the education majors spent most of their time in schools, Pattee said. While valuable, in the future she will have them visit more non-school agencies, she said.

"Teachers need to understand where their students' families get services, and they need to meet the providers," Pattee said. "Teachers get nervous for certain students. It helps if they know the resources available to students and how to help families access those services."

Establishing personal connections among teachers, nurses and social workers is an important part of meeting a community's overall needs, Lapp said.

"Once relationships are established, all of the programs designed to support families and communities are more effective," Lapp said. "Our students who joined in this immersion project will take that understanding with them as they begin their careers."

The project received support from UW-Eau Claire's Blugold Commitment.

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