CUIMC students work at a food pantry

Dígame Bienvenidos Welcomes Students to Washington Heights

One week before classes began this month, many incoming medical and dental students were already immersed in Washington Heights, the community where they will live, learn, and give back. 

The students arrived on campus early to participate in 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, MEd, assistant professor of community health in the Center for Family and Community Medicine. 

CUIMC students visit the Hispanic Society Museum

Columbia medical and dental students at the Hispanic Society of America Museum & Library. Photo courtesy of the Dígame Bienvenidos program at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons.

Forty students participated in the program this year, led by second-year VP&S students Kishan Bhatt, Mansi Shah, and Gabrielle Wimer. The students learned about community building, the history of Washington Heights, and the hospital system in New York City. 

“Many first-year students have never lived in New York City and know little about the city’s health care system,” says 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, led by local students in the Lang Youth Medical Program, and a visit to the Hispanic Society Museum helped build the students’ understanding of the neighborhood and its residents. Betty Kolod, MD, assistant professor of medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and board member of Physicians for a National Health Program-NY Metro, introduced the students to the New York City hospital system. 

Pastor Walter Sotelo speaks to students

Columbia medical and dental students in the Dígame Bienvenidos program during a tour of Washington Heights. Photo courtesy of the Dígame Bienvenidos program.

Students also volunteered at a food pantry in Inwood, visited the 175th Street Greenmarket to learn about the neighborhood’s food ecosystem, and toured the neighborhood with Pastor Walter Sotelo to learn about the community's needs. In the evenings, students enjoyed local cultural activities, including a rooftop Latin dance class and dinners at local restaurants. 

“Medical and dental students go through a rigorous curriculum,” Shah says, “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 Bhatt, “and the experience should help everyone develop lifelong skills that will be important wherever they end up working in the future.” 

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The Dígame Bienvenidos program is part of VP&S Student Affairs, which also runs Dígame, a summer program for rising second-year students. Dígame students spend eight weeks in Washington Heights learning and getting certified in medical Spanish and participating in clinical, health education, and cultural immersion activities.