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Making a Difference in the Latino Community

December 16, 2015

Portrait: Maria Emilce Lopez

Portrait: Maria Emilce Lopez
Photo by Jack Swift, CLAgency student

María Emilce López arrived at the idea for a new service-learning course in the Department of Spanish & Portuguese Studies after she had a medical incident and had to spend some time in a hospital. While there, she realized that there was a large disparity between the access she had to medical care as a competent English speaker and the access Spanish speakers in the Twin Cities Hispanic communities who were not proficient in English had. This experience and the community work that another senior teaching specialist in the department, Kathleen Ganley, was doing inspired López to develop her own course focused on serving the Latino community in a medical capacity.

Over the past 10 years, López has forged deep bonds and connections with medical leaders in the Latino community in the Twin Cities. She notes that, although Minnesota has some programs for the underprivileged, nonprofit and volunteer organizations often do not have enough help to reach all of the people in need of care. She has also found that many people who are seeking aid do not speak English as their first language. López created the course “Medical Spanish and Community Health Service” to help meet this need. This course, coupled with two others focusing on the same topics, attracts students who are studying Spanish and have aspirations of entering the medical field upon graduation. López seeks to connect these students with programs that are in line with their professional aspirations.

Students participating in this service-learning course are trained to work in community clinics and outreach programs. They go through all the necessary requirements and then they spend 42-45 hours per semester working with the people in the community. López emphasizes that these students are neither translators nor interpreters, but they interact in Spanish with those in the Latino community who need health assistance.

López notes that her favorite aspect of this course is that many of the students begin the class focused on how the course will help them, but they leave thinking about the community and the needs of those people. She exudes pride for the high quality of students who get involved with this course and the mutually beneficial relationships that develop. They are excellent University of Minnesota ambassadors to the greater public. This class is valued by community partners who, time and again, comment to her on students’ commitment, responsibility, and professionalism while working in the community setting. More often than not, López hears that the students continue volunteering their time with these programs, even after the completion of this course, because they have made such strong connections with the people they are working with there. “This is the kind of experience where your heart and your mind are affected,” she says.

Looking forward, López hopes to continue this program for many more years. She feels supported by the Department of Spanish and Portuguese Studies and the University, both of which see the value and importance in what the class means to the community. “As long as the need is there, and each year it is growing, if we can help this community, then why would we ever stop?” She says the course is invaluable to all those who have participated. “It’s an experience that helps students reflect on where they are and what they have and what they can do in their future when they work with people in need. This is what makes civic and professional engagement become a part of your life.”

This story was written by an undergraduate student account executive in CLAgency. Meet the team.