Minnesota Sr. Teaching Specialist Educates on Language and Life


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A brain aneurysm changed the life of María Emilce López forever—for the better.

While a grad student at the University of Minnesota in the 1990s, the Argentine native’s severe headaches led her to be rushed into surgery to treat what turned out to be a brain aneurysm.

This was her first, very scary brush with the American medical system.

After her ordeal, she decided it was time to help others who might be in a similar position.

López, now a senior teaching specialist at the University of Minnesota, helped create new medical Spanish classes that not only teach cultural competency, but also had a unique requirement of students.

Update 6/19/20: López passed away in June 2020. Our thoughts and prayers are with her family.

Navigating a health crisis

Maria Emilce Lopez
The medical Spanish classes are open to every student at the University of Minnesota.

María Emilce López learned first-hand how language barriers can make it hard for Latinos to get the healthcare they need to achieve health equity.

López had severe headaches and even suffered a brain aneurysm in 1996 while studying English as a graduate student at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, Minn. (6% Latino population).

“I was fortunate that I spoke the language and I was able to get a quality of care that helped save my life,” she said. “When I recovered though, I thought about how difficult it must be for those who don’t speak English.”

López realized that, for Latinos who are not as proficient in English as herself, a major health could range from simply frightening to dangerously life-threatening.

“I felt that I needed to do something to help out the people here who were not as fortunate as I was to have a command of the language,” she said.

López started getting involved by volunteering teaching English as a second language (ESL) to Guatamalans who recently came to the United States.

“In talking to this group, I realized I could be doing even more to help the community overall,” she said.

López wanted to amplify her volunteer work.

She had a big idea: “I wanted to create a class for students where they could learn practical medical Spanish and take it back into the community,” López said.

Creating medical Spanish classes

López’s idea was to create medical Spanish classes with a service-learning component, in which what was being taught to students could be practically applied in real world situations.

“It’s one thing to write a formal literary paper for a class and a different experience speaking one-on-one with someone from rural Ecuador at a clinic,” she said.

From 1999 to 2000, she researched what would need to be done to create such a course, and began developing a potential curriculum that she could present for review by committees in the Spanish and Portuguese Studies Department and also the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Minnesota.

Students started expressing support for her idea.

“There was a lot of interest from students here about the idea of the class,” López said. “We needed to find the right ‘place’ for it though. Once we could do that, we knew it would be something the students would respond to.”

She presented the idea to her departmental leaders in early 2002.

Maria Emilce Lopez
López developed a service learning component to the courses so that students could go into the community and volunteer.

The department heads gave “full support” to the concept for medical Spanish courses, López said, but planning and logistics would take time.

“We first wanted to create a for-credit class for professionals,” López said. “But, this proved to be very difficult. It was hard for professionals to commit to a full semester of classes.”

They then sought to house the classes in the medical school and offer them to the university’s medical students. Students again expressed interest, but López faced a new roadblock.

She was developing the curriculum when it was ultimately decided that the medical Spanish class was going to be “too rigorous” for medical students to undertake as part of their regular course of study, so she designed zero-credit courses offered through the College of Continuing Education.

After more discussion, they agreed on a permanent home for the classes: the College of Liberal Arts.

“The students there were really supportive and there was real interest in the course and what it could offer,” López said. “I am very happy and appreciate that we have always had the full support of the university.”

Education is the key

López began teaching simple medical Spanish classes (without a service learning component) in the College of Liberal Arts in fall 2002.

After several iterations, the classes began to evolve as their popularity grew. In addition to a beginner’s level course, which would be taught in English and Spanish, there would be advanced, Spanish-only class, too.

Still, López remembered her original mission and wanted to do more.

“I knew I still wanted to work with the community,” she said. “I thought maybe the students could one day work together with someone with what they learned here in the classes. Still I thought there was room for more. We could still reach the community here somehow.”

It was out of this need to do more that Medical Spanish Service Learning courses were born.

López continued to build a service learning component for the medical Spanish courses that would “include skills and vocabulary that were relevant to the groups that the students would be serving,” she said.

In time for the spring 2008 semester, López began teaching Medical Spanish Service Learning to students.

Over the course of a semester, López teaches her students not only specialized Spanish vocabulary, but also practically how to use it. Students are required to volunteer between 42 and 45 hours during a semester in Latino-serving organizations in the Minneapolis-St. Paul community, such as clinics, neighborhood outreach groups, churches, and other like-minded institutions.

“By the end of the semester, it’s not about the students anymore,” López said. “It’s about the community they’ve worked with.”

Since the service-learning classes went into effect in fall 2008, service learning engagement has become a major focus of the curriculum.

“This has been a learning process,” López explained. “My goal is to get the students to a place where they are going to learn and assist with our community. Even when they leave here and leave these classes, many of my students remain engaged.”

The students and the patients build trust through the common language use. The community and students benefit.

“Volunteering really opened my eyes to the healthcare disparities out there,” said Eli Eggen, a former student of López who took the course in 2013.

The next generation of Latino health advocates

The medical Spanish classes are open to every student at the University of Minnesota.

Students must progress from the intermediate level through the advanced level before taking the service learning courses.

The classes have been given the full support of the University and López’s department as they fulfill part of the University of Minnesota’s long-standing mission of outreach and community engagement.

“I realized something a while ago. I came to this country some time ago to further my career in English. I wanted to go back home and have a career” in Argentina, López said. She envisioned using her collegiate degree to boost her skills, credentials, and experience to refine her work as an English teacher and translator/interpreter in Argentina.

“When I had my procedure, the experience made me think about issues I never considered before. If I had not had the ability to communicate in the language that the doctors and nurses and hospital people were using, that would have been frightening.”

“When my students come back and share with me their stories, it is gratifying to me. Seeing that we have been able to keep an open mind, reflect, and take action. I’m convinced that, after a meaningful experience, you won’t stop being involved as a person, community member, and professional. That makes me know what we do matters.”

By The Numbers By The Numbers



of Latino parents support public funding for afterschool programs

This success story was produced by Salud America! with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

The stories are intended for educational and informative purposes. References to specific policymakers, individuals, schools, policies, or companies have been included solely to advance these purposes and do not constitute an endorsement, sponsorship, or recommendation. Stories are based on and told by real community members and are the opinions and views of the individuals whose stories are told. Organization and activities described were not supported by Salud America! or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and do not necessarily represent the views of Salud America! or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

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