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Intercultural LEAD scholars among presenters at anthropology conference

The effect of the COVID-19 pandemic may be dissipating, but its legacy continues to linger. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the disease has infected almost 80 million Americans as of Monday, March 21, and has led to the deaths of almost 970,000 people.

Mayte Rodriguez Ortiz, a junior sociology major at the College of Saint Benedict, knows more than a little about the disproportionate impact of Coronavirus on people who face language barriers in getting information about the disease or in seeking health care for it. She worked last summer with Ellen Block, associate professor of anthropology at CSB and Saint John’s University, to conduct interviews with 25 health care providers from around the country. Their research was a follow-up to 55 interviews conducted in 2020 and shows the workers’ experience providing care. They delved into clinical changes, challenges, and the impacts on the providers’ lives and personal relationships under great stress and exposure to the virus.

“I began to notice a reoccurring theme of language barriers,” said Rodriguez Ortiz, a scholar with the Intercultural Leadership Education and Development (Intercultural LEAD) program. “There’s also a perception in marginalized communities that people have to go to their jobs to sustain their families, and those jobs often are in fast food industries and factories – places where contact with others is close. And, with the Latino community, a lot of people are undocumented and that doesn’t allow them to have the benefits intended to help people at risk. I was interested in learning more about how health care providers view that from their end.”

COVID disproportionately affects Hispanic/Latino populations

According to the CDC, Hispanic/Latino people in the U.S. account for 25% of cases despite representing roughly 18% of the overall population. Rodriguez Ortiz is presenting her research at a Society for Applied Anthropology conference this week in Salt Lake City, Utah, with the hope that targeted communication can improve those results – not only for COVID but also whatever health challenges come in the future.

The research with the health care workers showed a danger for people who spoke primarily Spanish, Somali and Asian languages because they had difficulty understanding their diagnosis and its severity. Many such patients were unvaccinated because they didn’t understand why it was necessary or were afraid it could pose risks. Further, marginalized communities also feature more multigenerational homes than other populations because it’s more economical to live together. That created additional opportunity for infection, as did a resistance to use prescribed medicine in favor of traditional cultural remedies.

Rodriguez Ortiz, whose family immigrated from Mexico before she went to St. Paul Highland Park High School in Minnesota, feels called to try to make a difference.

“I’ve had to navigate some of these things myself,” she said. “So that gives me a different perspective from some of my peers.”

Venegas-Ramos part of group addressing food insecurity at CSB and SJU

Another Intercultural LEAD scholar, Fabian Venegas-Ramos, also is presenting at the conference with a group of four other students (Montserrat Alejandre Jimenez, Keira Johnson, Nicole Lefebvre and Isabelle Scheffler). They developed a project in their environmental anthropology course that drew on an existing data set documenting food insecurity facing CSB and SJU students. Venegas-Ramos, an SJU senior gender studies/sociology major, worked with the group to analyze qualitative interviews – many conducted by other students – and they developed a poster discussing the intersectional impact of food insecurity on both campuses.

Their work was under the direction of Megan Sheehan, assistant professor of anthropology, and part of a broader project, “Food Insecurity on Campus – A Qualitative Study,” done in collaboration with Dr. Emily Heying, associate professor of nutrition, and 16 student researchers. In the course of a year, they conducted 53 interviews with students about their experiences with dining, meal services, and food insecurity on campus. The research sought to better understand the impact and understandings of food insecurity. Heying and Dr. Jonathan Merritt Nash, associate professor of history, previously identified the incidence of food insecurity on the CSB and SJU campuses as affecting about one out of every three students – a number consistent with other American colleges. They sought to learn how students understand their food practices and the limits and barriers they face in food acquisition. Venegas-Ramos and their group will highlight one of the most pressing challenges found: food insecurity is highest among Black, Indigenous and other students of color, out-of-state and international students, and those without access to transportation.

Intercultural LEAD scholars among 10 presenters from CSB and SJU

Intercultural LEAD supports underrepresented, high-achieving, first-generation college students who have demonstrated leadership. Those chosen for the program participate in small cohorts where they bond with one another during a pre-orientation campus visit. They also are mentored and encouraged to become role models and leaders on campus and in greater communities.

Rodriguez Ortiz and Venegas-Ramos are two of 10 CSB and SJU students who will present their research at the conference thanks to support from the Office of Undergraduate Research and the CSB and SJU Student Senates. The other presenters include: Grace Savard on COVID-19 and healthcare workers titled “Promoting ‘Good Deaths’ During a Pandemic: Is it possible?”; Abby Kaluza is presenting a poster on COVID-19 and the emergence of telehealth; Faith Gronda on “Revitalizing Native Seeds: Dream of Wild Health’s Mission to Reconnect Native Youth to Cultural Traditions through Agriculture”; Erin Long on her thesis research called “Crafting Affect through Memory: Venezuelan Narratives of Belonging and Exclusion in Chile.”

“I’m excited to present,” said Rodriguez Ortiz, who participated in all aspects of the COVID project – from data collection, coding and analysis to literature reviews and other tasks. “I think there’s a common theme among people who are immigrants that they have to give back to their countries, they have to keep pushing to make money and if they end up in a hospital it will just result in more bills to pay. I’m hoping to create a space where we understand what those values come from and how we can help them. One of my solutions would be to create more informational flyers or perhaps a commercial that could air here in Minnesota so Latino community members learn more about health care in general.”

Next semester, she plans to study in Chile – where she’ll also volunteer at a school. Her career goal is to be involved in social work for Hispanic/Latino communities.

Mayte Rodriguez Ortiz