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Spring 2011

Diversity and Communications

Faculty member Kent Wilkinson recognizes a need for effective communications across ethnicities and melds that into his research at Texas Tech’s Institute for Hispanic and International Communication.

by Katie Allen

Kent Wilkinson

An emergency room doctor walks into a patient's room, where the patient is clearly in pain and explaining his symptoms – in Spanish. A Spanish-speaking hospital employee is needed in the room to relay these symptoms to the doctor in English before a diagnosis can be reached. Another Spanish-speaking patient, concerned about taking new medication with her other prescriptions, searches for information about the medications only to find related articles and videos with the information she needs in English. Communication barriers between patients and healthcare workers pose a major problem and can cause insufficient treatments and life-threatening errors.

Communication issues like these are evident across the U.S., but especially in Texas, which has the largest Spanish-speaking population in the country. Texas Tech University's Kent Wilkinson is hoping to help eliminate these barriers, and in turn, save lives.

Wilkinson, a faculty member in the College of Mass Communications, specializes in international communication, particularly relating to U.S. Spanish-language media. Wilkinson completed his bachelor's degree at the University of Colorado, master's degree at the University of California at Berkeley and doctorate at the University of Texas. Although he developed an interest in Latin American studies early in his educational career, it was living and working in Peru for six months that made Wilkinson really interested in how the communication oriented toward U.S. Hispanics integrates internationally with other Spanish-speaking areas.

"When I returned to the United States (from Peru), I was studying more things Hispanic and international communication, and just my interest, my love for the culture and the Spanish language has deepened," Wilkinson said. "There's a great opportunity as a professor to be able to teach students who have that culture – who practice that culture every day, and to try to pull others in."

As demographics continually change in the U.S., Wilkinson said it's important for people to understand how the messages we send are interpreted by other cultures.

"I don't see a huge barrier between the market in Brazil and the Spanish-speaking world because of geography, history and a number of other factors," Wilkinson said. "I'm constantly thinking about how what's going on in the United States, in terms of Hispanic-oriented communication, fits into a larger dynamic of Latin America and also Iberia, Spain and Portugal."

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Kent Wilkinson was chosen as a 2009 Texas Tech Integrated Scholar by the Office of the Provost.

College of Mass Communications

The College of Mass Communications at Texas Tech offers undergraduate degrees in various communications-related disciplines including advertising, electronic media and communications, journalism, and public relations.

The college also offers graduate degrees in communications to prepare students for careers in the communications industry, communications research and academia.

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Image Courtesy Neal Hinkle, TTUHSC.
Video produced by Scott Irbeck, Office of Communications & Marketing.

Building the Initiative and Welcoming Partnerships

The Institute for Hispanic and International Communication (IHIC) at Texas Tech promotes research and a better understanding of Hispanic-related and international mass communication. The IHIC was launched in 2006 when Wilkinson was hired at Texas Tech as the Regents Professor in Hispanic and International Communication. It not only supports on-campus activities, but it also has grown the research and course offerings related to Hispanic and other cross-cultural communications.

Many faculty members in the College of Mass Communications are involved in the IHIC in some capacity and have their own research interests. Research projects that are on-going within the IHIC not only involve the College of Mass Communications, but many are also collaborative in nature. Mass Communications faculty members within the institute are working on projects with faculty from other colleges at Texas Tech, as well as other universities. Wilkinson is one of those faculty members. He currently focuses his research on ways to communicate information about obesity and diabetes among rural Hispanics, as well as the need for more Hispanics to pursue health careers. He partners with the Texas Tech Health Sciences Center (TTUHSC) and the F. Marie Hall Institute for Rural and Community Health to do his research.

"If you look at the demographic change that's going on, it's really important that we get a diverse workforce in healthcare, because there are cultural linguistic barriers in the delivery of health care," Wilkinson said.

In addition to working with the TTUHSC, Wilkinson said community partnerships are also important when research is concerned. These partnerships include Raiders Rojos National Alumni Chapter, a supportive organization for Hispanic college students; the Catholic Diocese of Lubbock; and the Latino/Hispanic Faculty and Staff Association, of which Wilkinson is a member.

"We rely on people in the community to inform us about their preferences, their routines, their attitudes toward certain health-related issues," Wilkinson said. "We also rely on our community partners to get access to those populations, recruit the focus groups and distribute surveys."

He said partnerships like these help build a two-way relationship, by which Texas Tech can perform research to find ways to help the community, and the community can help the university by identifying populations to study.

"It's easy for us to get locked into our routines here within the university and forget the larger purpose that we're serving," Wilkinson said. "Hopefully, we are helping our local community as well as the broader community."

Working with Students

Building strong relationships with students is also important to Wilkinson and other faculty members within the IHIC. Wilkinson said many graduate students, who were admitted to the College of Mass Communications the past couple of years, have specifically identified that they want to work with the IHIC on research projects. Wilkinson said a handful of undergraduate students also help out with IHIC research, but he would like to see more undergraduates involved in the future.

"I think we need to expand undergraduate research not only in the institute, but more broadly," he said. "As faculty, we need to be more proactive in terms of identifying the students who are motivated to do research and who might be thinking about going on to research careers, to get that experience and know what it's like to work in an academic research environment before they actually go to graduate school."

Wilkinson teaches courses at Texas Tech including Ethnicity, Race and Gender in Media, Media Theories and Society, and International Electronic Media. He also teaches graduate courses, including Ethnic-Oriented Media, Hispanic Media and International Communication. He said it is rewarding to watch intercultural communications be brought to life when students from all backgrounds share their personal experiences.

"A lot of students' lives outside of the classroom have to do with cross-cultural and international communication," Wilkinson said. "You learn so much about other societies not only through the direct discussion but also the points of view and some of the rhetorical positions that students take as a result of their upbringing."

Current Projects and Developing Goals

The IHIC already has a biannual newsletter in place for alumni, and current faculty and students to keep everyone aware of the outstanding research and outreach it is providing at Texas Tech and to the community. Wilkinson said bringing to campus guest speakers from all over the world and supporting projects, such as the Global Lens film series—an annual touring film series that supports the distribution of works from around the world—are all important in adding cultural diversity and awareness to Texas Tech.

Wilkinson said his immediate goals include finishing writing and publishing data from focus groups and surveys taken statewide that examine the interests of Hispanics in pursuing health-related careers. He also is working on a book-length manuscript about the growth of Spanish-language television in the U.S. since the 1950s.

Of course, Wilkinson would also like to see the IHIC expand its resources to bring in more support for student and faculty research. More research leads to more success in helping others.

"Particularly with the university's movement toward Tier One, people have to be active, productive researchers," Wilkinson said. "We're really excited about the young faculty who have joined in the last several years."

Whether it's mentoring students or junior faculty, teaching others how to effectively communicate across cultures or leading a group study abroad program to Texas Tech's center in Seville, Spain, Wilkinson puts everything he has into his work. His dedication as a scholar earned him recognition as one of 12 selected integrated scholars, which are those faculty members who exemplify effective research, teaching and service, at Texas Tech in 2009.

"I really see a lot of people in mass communications and across campus who are doing awesome work," Wilkinson said. "Texas Tech provides an environment that encourages integrated scholarship, and that makes it a fun place to be."

Health Communications Reality Check

Recognize a need in society and research the best ways to address that need – that's how Rosalinda Jimenez lives her professional life.

Jimenez, a certified family nurse practitioner and director of the Cardiac Health Evaluation Clinic (CHEC) at University Medical Center in Lubbock, sees the need for more Spanish-speaking healthcare workers every day. About half of the patients Jimenez has are Spanish-speaking, and she said out of the more than 20 people she works with, only she and three others are fluent in both English and Spanish.

"I have encouraged for nurses and physicians to grab me or the other three professionals to translate," Jimenez said. "The problem we run into when we grab someone who doesn't understand the medical terminology is misinterpretation of the information given to the patient in translation. Pertinent information may be lost if you don't have someone who understands the terminology or information being translated."

Just knowing the Spanish language is often not enough. It helps to have people on staff who know the language and medical terminology.

"The average reading level for the American population is about a 6 to 8th grade reading level, less in the Latin and Hispanic population," Jimenez said. "They have a hard time understanding medical terminology in Spanish, much less in a translated version."

Language barriers in healthcare are of particular concern in Texas, which has the largest Hispanic population in the U.S. The Sullivan Commission on Diversity in the Healthcare Workforce, developed by former U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Louis W. Sullivan, M.D., has advocated for a more diverse healthcare profession population. The commission found that patients more often trust and prefer someone of their own race and ethnic background, which has caused many hospitals to hire Spanish and English-speaking professionals to meet the demographics of the populations they serve. Jimenez said some hospitals offer more money or incentives, such as time off, to bilingual health professionals as a way to recruit them.

"In my personal experience, a bilingual person will be hired first," she said.

As minority populations grow, researchers are finding ways to address the need for more minority healthcare workers. Jimenez is currently working on her doctoral dissertation, which examines the recruitment and retention of Latino/a nurses. She is researching how mentorship will aid in this endeavor.

Katie Allen is a Sr. Editor in the Office of the Vice President for Research at Texas Tech University.

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Sep 24, 2014