Dígame Bienvenidos: Getting to Know Washington Heights

Before classes began in August, VP&S and Columbia Dental Medicine students immersed themselves in their new neighborhood through Dígame Bienvenidos, a four-day orientation program that introduces new students to the history, culture, and contemporary issues of the medical center’s local community. 

“Dígame Bienvenidos grew out of students’ realization that an understanding of the culture of our community would enable them to provide better care to the patients they will see here,” says program director Ana Esteban Gonzalez, MD, assistant professor of community health in the Center for Family and Community Medicine. 

Forty students participated in this year’s program, led by second-year VP&S students Kishan Bhatt, Mansi Shah, and Gabrielle Wimer. 

“Many first-year students have never lived in New York City and know little about the city’s health care system,” says Ms. Wimer. “Focusing on the context in which they will serve—and how they can advocate to improve the system—was a great way to set the stage for the start of their medical and dental education.” 

During the week, students met Maria Lizardo, executive director of the Northern Manhattan Improvement Corporation, and discussed community activism and advocacy. A walking tour of Washington Heights and a visit to the Hispanic Society Museum helped the students learn about the neighborhood and its residents. 

Students also volunteered at a food pantry and visited the 175th Street Greenmarket to learn about the neighborhood’s food ecosystem. In the evenings, students enjoyed local cultural activities. 

“Medical and dental students go through a rigorous curriculum,” says Ms. Shah, “but providing compassionate and empathetic care requires understanding aspects of people’s health and lived experience that can only be fully understood outside of the classroom.” 

“All of the students who participated brought so much enthusiasm and thoughtfulness to our events,” adds Mr. Bhatt, “and the experience should help everyone develop lifelong skills that will be important wherever they end up working in the future.”