VIDA! Brings Med Students Closer to Their Neighbors

February 5, 2013
With Camila Mateo's VIDA!, future P&S students can go online to learn about Washington Heights and Dominican culture.

As one of two P&S students in the Class of 2013 with Dominican roots, Camila Mateo is used to answering questions about Dominican culture, Spanish, and Washington Heights from her classmates. The daughter of two pediatricians, Mateo grew up in Florida but chose P&S largely because of the chance to live in Washington Heights, and she quickly became ensconced in the community.

At first, the questions centered on food and entertainment available in the neighborhood.  But the nature of the questions changed completely when her class entered its second year and started caring for patients.

“There is a definite cultural distance between the university and the community, and my classmates were facing those issues on the wards for the first time,” she says. “They were frustrated and would ask me questions such as, how come my Dominican patients are lost to follow up for four months? To which I'd explain that Dominican culture is profoundly transnational and, for cultural and financial reasons, many people live part of the year in New York and the other part in the DR.”

So when the time came for Mateo to pick a scholarly project (the Class of 2013 is the first P&S class to fulfill a scholarly project requirement), she thought about the difficulty her fellow non-Dominican classmates had in navigating cultural issues. And what she could do to help future P&S students.

The Beginning of VIDA!

Her idea—a website called VIDA! (for Virtual Introduction to Dominican Americans in Washington Heights)—brings back some aspects of a Washington Heights walking tour offered to students until a few years ago.

VIDA! starts off with information about local restaurants and historical sites, but then dives deeper into common beliefs and characteristics of Dominican Americans.

“I wanted to create a safe space where people could learn about their neighbors, learn about their patients, and not be afraid to ask questions,” Mateo explains. “At the same time, I don’t want people to feel they are on a cultural safari, which was one of the complaints of the walking tour.”

To prepare the site, Mateo visited many of the neighborhood’s community organizations—including Alianza Dominicana, CLOTHE, and the ARC XVI Senior Center—for advice. Her faculty adviser, Dodi Meyer, MD, associate clinical professor of pediatrics, helped her focus the content. Her classmates helped her understand what kinds of information students need.

Launched in early February, VIDA! also includes a feedback survey where users can suggest improvements.

Mateo hopes the website also shows everyone at CUMC how much the community has to offer. “We often think: How can we make Washington Heights and Inwood better? We look at the community in terms of its deficits,” she says. “But what if we started looking at its assets? What does this community already have that we’re missing because we’re not looking hard enough?”

Next Steps for Mateo

Next up for Mateo: taking boards, interviewing for residency spots, and Match Day on March 15, when graduating students learn where they will go for residency.

Mateo has applied to the pediatrics program at Children's Hospital of New York; she hopes to follow in the footsteps of her pediatrician parents.

“When I was little, I remember my parents would come home from the hospital wearing their white coats, which would billow out like  capes when they walked. I saw them as superheroes,” she says.

“I idealized them, but the idea of becoming a doctor has persisted with me ever since because I didn’t see anything else that could give me the kind of satisfaction my parents had. They were tired when they came home, but they were smiling.”