Alemayehu “Alex” Eshete doesn’t have much trouble reading or understanding English, his second language after growing up speaking Amharic in Ethiopia. However, he often felt others had trouble understanding him.
Because of language and cultural challenges, Eshete had difficulty giving presentations, especially when he first transferred into Towson (Md.) University’s department of nursing last fall.
But with the help of accent modification workshops that are part of the school’s Incorporating Diversity Empowers All program, Eshete, a second-semester junior, said he has gained confidence in his speaking.
“He has improved so much in his diction and pronunciation of words,” said Orlett Haskett, MSN, RN, IDEA program coordinator. “That’s beyond nursing. That’s something they can use in their daily life.”
The IDEA program developed out of the recognition that at Towson, culturally and linguistically diverse nursing students had higher failure rates than English-speaking students born in U.S., particularly in the first semester, said Bonnie Fuller, PhD, RN, CNE, assistant professor and IDEA program director at the Towson University department of nursing.
The result is that “the face of nursing does not match the face of the United States,” Fuller said. Minorities account for about 37% of the U.S. population, but the percentage of RNs from minority backgrounds is just 19%, according to the “Enhancing Diversity in the Workforce” fact sheet from the American Association of Colleges of Nursing.
When Fuller read a report by the Sullivan Commission on Diversity in the Healthcare Workforce, Fuller realized the department needed to do something to increase opportunities for minority students to pursue careers in nursing.
The IDEA program is funded by a one-time $176,000 grant from the Maryland Healthcare Education Institute’s “Who Will Care” fund for nursing education, which is sponsored by the Maryland Hospital Association, Fuller said. The voluntary IDEA program started in the summer of 2014 with an orientation for students beginning that fall semester.
The grant sponsors the IDEA center where students can drop by for informal mentoring or to participate in workshops. The center helps students build relationships and become more comfortable asking questions. “It’s an area where students can come together and have small study groups, eat lunch together and have coffee in the morning together,” Fuller said.
Some of the workshops addressed medical technology, how to study and how to take tests, she said. One workshop discussed the book, Medically Speaking Idioms, which is written for healthcare providers who speak English as a second language and explains common medical terminology and jargon.
Students also can take advantage, as Eshete did, of time with a professor from Towson’s speech pathology department to work on accent modification and communication enhancement. “Communication in healthcare is essential when you’re talking with other healthcare providers and the patient,” Fuller said.
About 20% of the nursing school, or about 30 to 35 students, are culturally or linguistically diverse, according to Fuller. In the fall of 2014, about 75% of them participated in the program.
Students have provided positive feedback and referred their peers to the program, Fuller said. “There’s a much higher awareness of resources available for students and students are taking advantage of those resources,” she added.
Mentoring for success
Students also can learn from nurses and nursing students who recently have experienced some of the same challenges at school.
“I try to be like that big sister/mentor to give them encouragement and tell them they can make it,” said Haskett, who until recently also worked as an ED nurse in Baltimore County.
Haskett said she’ll go over a topic in American nursing with a student and “take the time to really dissect and break it down and translate it into their native language first and then back to English and contextually apply what they’re reading.” Sometimes, for example, it may involve just explaining to the students what a medicine like Benadryl does because some cultures use herbal remedies to treat allergic reactions and not over-the-counter medications, she said.
The program’s peer instructor coaches, including senior Caitlin Stephens, help students with specific subject matter such as writing or dosage calculations. Many students who are just starting classes benefit from visiting the IDEA center and having conversations with a student who has been through that first or second semester already.
“They need someone to talk to who is understanding of what they’re going through,” Stephens said.
The IDEA program also provides a welcoming place for students who may feel isolated because English is their second language.
“It’s like a safe haven for students,” Haskett said. “They can come and share their personal and academic concerns.”
Karen Long is a freelance writer.