Students teach Spanish to Macon County Public Health Center employees

Mark Smith, a junior Spanish major from King, teaches Spanish skills to registered nurses, from left, Sue Fitzgerald and Sue Smith.

Mark Smith, a junior Spanish major from King, teaches Spanish skills to registered nurses, from left, Sue Fitzgerald and Sue Smith.

Students studying Spanish through Western Carolina University’s modern foreign languages departmentare working in partnership with the Macon County Public Health Center to reach out and help bridge the communication gap with the Hispanic population.

Jamie Davis, assistant professor of Spanish and French, and his students are teaching health department employees useful Spanish phrases specific to individual jobs in each division of public health, including environmental health, nursing, dentistry, nutrition, clerical work, family planning and prenatal care. Davis distributes printouts and MP3 recordings of pertinent phrases as a reference guide and to help employees continue to practice after the program is over.

“The purpose of this service learning program is to show Spanish students at WCU the relevance of their knowledge in a rapidly changing world,” said Davis. “Hispanics have often been consigned to second-class status in the United States because of ethnocentrism and the hegemony of the English language. This program brings together compassion, learning and humanitarianism in order to meet the burgeoning needs of Hispanic immigrants.”

Each week, Davis and the students pair up with employees from different departments to practice pronunciation and proper use of phrases, most of which are in the form of questions or instructions. Some commonly used phrases are: Do you have any allergies? (¿Tienes alergias?); Have you had anything to eat in the last 12 hours?  (¿Has comido en las últimas doce horas); Don¹t move. (No te muevas); Wait. (Espera).

Tammy Keezer, MCPHC human resources coordinator, arranges biweekly meetings and coordinates staff participation. “MCPHC strives to assure a competent public health care workforce in order to best meet the needs of the community,” said Keezer. “With a growing number of Spanish-speaking consumers, it is of utmost importance that our staff be able to communicate and provide services effectively. Because we provide services at the clinic as well as in schools, at residential building sites and various other locations, our two full-time interpreters are not always available to assist with daily routine information that is required of every patient.”

MCPHC employees say they are enthusiastic about the program because not only do they feel it will make their jobs easier, but it enables them to form a more personal connection with patients and ease apprehension of Hispanic patients’ apprehension when receiving health care in an unfamiliar atmosphere. Some employees have purchased Spanish translation books to further what they’ve learned from WCU students and Davis.

Tracy Hord, a registered nurse at MCPHC, said she is sympathetic to the needs of the Hispanic population.

“How would you like to be in another country and in need of medical attention when you couldn’t even communicate with the people taking care of you?” Hord said.

Mark Smith, a junior Spanish major from King, said he has enjoyed his participation in the service learning program. “By helping to break the language barrier with the Hispanic community, we can encourage both sides to be more open to communication,” Smith said.

For more information about WCU’s modern foreign languages department, call (828) 227-7241.