Over the summer, as renewed calls for social justice rang out across the country, third-year DMD student Imani Behrens wanted to do more. After engaging with leaders from each of the cultural student groups in the dental school, the Cultural Diversity Roundtable (CDR) was born.
“I felt like a lot of things were happening in the Black community, and I wanted to bring light to the issues impacting Black students in the dental school,” said Behrens, president of the university’s Student National Dental Association (SNDA) chapter. “But I also knew that other groups were dealing with their own challenges and so this needed to be an inclusive effort to ensure everyone’s voices are heard.”
Working closely with dental school leadership and the university’s Office for Inclusion, Diversity and Equal Opportunity, the roundtable was established to support a better learning environment for all. Student leaders from the school’s Student National Dental Association (SNDA), Hispanic Student Dental Association (HSDA), Chinese Student Dental Association, Middle Eastern North African Dental Association (MENA), Desi Dental Students and Korean American Dental Association Ohio chapters are represented, with the American Student Dental Association serving as a neutral party in the discussions.
The creation of CDR is what originally inspired students in the dental school to establish new cultural organizations, including MENA, said D2 student Jenna Farraj. “Such organizations led by students who value diversity within the student body ensures mutual respect and appreciation for individuals of different backgrounds."
The group provides a safe space to discuss social justice issues impacting each community—such as racial bias in health care and microaggressions—and how these should be considered when working with patients.
“Every patient who visits the dental clinic deserves to be at maximum comfort,” said Behrens. “The experience can be overwhelming if you’re already anxious about receiving dental care. You also deserve to be treated with respect.”
During regular meetings, student leaders address concerns raised by their peers and develop plans to increase education and awareness. As second-year dental student Jennifer Jung mentioned, many of the issues the group is addressing existed prior to the pandemic.
“The discussions in the group on diversifying curriculum have enhanced my understanding of inclusion,” said EJ Santos, D2 student and vice president of HSDA. “I have learned a ton from my colleagues just from listening to different inputs based on their unique backgrounds.”
In addition to offering resources and educational opportunities for current students, they are also working toward developing a more diverse pipeline of incoming students to enhance representation in the dental profession.
In the future, the roundtable plans to host in-person workshops about microaggressions to help students understand what these actions look like and how to avoid them when interacting with their patients, colleagues and instructors. They are also looking at initiatives to enhance the community outreach curriculum, once those activities are safe to resume.
Despite the challenges of starting a group under the limitations of the COVID-19 pandemic, the roundtable has already made meaningful progress and looks forward to building on this strong foundation in the years to come.
“The roundtable really exists for everyone,” said D3 student Becky Farag. “I hope in the future our work can spread wider in the dental school, and engage more students and faculty who might not feel as comfortable engaging in conversations of social justice, diversity, equity and inclusion. The more students and faculty are able to engage in these topics, the larger the roundtable itself becomes."