Long before Dr. Melissa Contreras was an optometrist, long before she graduated from MBKU’s Southern California College of Optometry, and long before she joined the faculty of SCCO, she was shaped by an experience common among people in America with parents or grandparents who are not native speakers of English.
She served as interpreter, counselor and lead advocate for her grandmother while her grandmother navigated the health care system. As a child, Dr. Contreras never questioned it; she just knew that it made her grandmother feel better that she was there – and she could see how difficult it was for her grandmother when she wasn’t.
When Dr. Contreras followed her passion for helping people to optometry school at MBKU, she soon found herself in a very familiar place. Once clinical rotations began and she and her classmates began seeing patients, she was often called upon to serve as an unofficial, always-on-call interpreter. She had to learn optometric terms in Spanish very quickly and, ultimately, she was happy to do so, particularly when she saw the patients’ relief and gratitude. But she also thought to herself, “There has to be a better way.”
There is a better way. It’s empowering more and more optometrists and other health care providers to understand and reflect the diversity of the populations they serve, as one more method for giving the absolute best care possible.
A New Taskforce
MBKU is invested in this principle, and in the summer of 2020 established the new Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Taskforce in order to explore and develop programs for it. Co-leading the taskforce will be Dr. Contreras along with Vice President for Educational Effectiveness and Institutional Research Dr. Judy Ortiz, who likewise has extensive experience providing care to and understanding immigrant communities. Dr. Ortiz also just led MBKU’s Strategic Planning process, and has familiarity with gathering diverse perspectives and lots of data, and cohering them into strategy.
The committee is now in its earliest stages, but Dr. Ortiz sees the potential as they gather voices from as much of the MBKU community as possible. “One of the first things we did when President Alexander reached out to us to start this committee was gather our leaders and discuss how we want to engage all the members of our campus community,” says Dr. Ortiz. “That includes students, faculty, alumni, staff, administrators, our Board of Trustees, and even our preceptors and clinical partners. It’s a very broad net of people we want to involve in this.”
Care For The Whole Person
In addition to the long-term goal of having each individual program at MBKU develop and maintain meaningful diversity plans that are unique to them, Dr. Alexander asked the committee to focus right away on three areas: The first is to attract, recruit, support, and retain diverse students and faculty. The second is to take a deep, data-driven dive into the campus climate at MBKU, and the third is to work toward a truly anti-racist culture, with an increased awareness of the distinct issues and challenges that diverse communities face as they navigate health care institutions.
For Dr. Ortiz and Dr. Contreras, this work is important in the same way that researching new technical innovations is. Ultimately it is the patients that MBKU students care for now and in the future who will benefit. Every one of those patients has a story, and that story is more deeply invested in when our institutions treat them with dignity. “I’ve had those powerful instances where I felt like I could truly provide care to the whole person,” says Dr. Contreras. “And what drives me is the knowledge that every patient deserves this experience—to feel like they’re truly, truly cared for.”