Southeast Launching New Minor in Spanish for the Health Professions


As the need for culturally competent health care professionals increases, Southeast Missouri State University is focusing on preparing and educating students with the skills and knowledge to meet the marketplace demand and serve the community.

Beginning in fall 2019, Southeast students pursuing degrees in health-related fields will be able to graduate with a Spanish for the health professions minor.

“The goal of the program is to serve a need in the community and position the students with in-demand skills in healthcare fields,” said Dr. Debbie Lee-DiStefano, professor of Spanish language and culture at Southeast.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates that bilingual employees are in demand and make higher salaries in the same profession than monolingual speakers.

The minor will offer experience in Spanish to interested students in health professions degree programs. Graduates will learn to discuss health matters with clientele in Spanish, assisting a population that has been underserved due to communication issues. The 18-credit hour minor was proposed by the Department of Communication Studies and Modern Languages and may appeal to students in several degree programs such as nursing, health communication, pre-physician assistant, pre-physical therapy, health management and biomedical sciences.

The program will help students improve their proficiency in Spanish, improve the marketability and portability of the students’ health degrees, and improve the students’ abilities to work with diverse populations, Lee-DiStefano said.

To fulfill the program requirements, students take three levels of “Spanish for the Health Professions,” “Introduction to Hispanic Literature” and a 300-level Spanish course. The students must also take an experiential learning course such as “Winter in Ecuador” or a similar study-abroad course approved by their advisor and pass the Spanish Proficiency Exit Exam.

Southeast student Molly Gasior has completed all three levels of “Spanish for the Health Professions” and is currently tutoring other students taking these courses.

“It’s a very unique program because it combines classroom and hands-on experiential learning,” Lee-DiStefano said. “Our students spend time studying the language within the context of their chosen profession, get to be immersed in the culture and demonstrate their abilities before graduating.”

For sophomore Molly Gasior of Clarendon Hills, Illinois, the new program allows her to combine her passions for helping others and the Spanish language.

“When I was comparing universities, the communication disorders and Spanish programs were very important to me because I knew that creating that extra bond with a client through having a fluid conversation without an interpreter would create a higher probability of a stronger client to clinician relationship,” said Gasior, who is pursuing a degree in communication studies with double minors in autism studies and Spanish for the health professions. “The Spanish for the Health Professionals minor truly put Southeast over the top and made it very clear that the University had the best interests of students in preparing them for the workforce.”

The program builds cultural humility and understanding to allow students as future healthcare professions to provide the best care to more patients, Lee-DiStefano said. Southeast prepares students for questions and situations that could arise and to be able to understand their patient within social and cultural contexts.

Gasior, who has completed all three levels of “Spanish for the Health Professions” and is currently tutoring other students taking these courses, is confident she can speak Spanish with future patients or clients, but she can also better interact, understand and relay information with the correct vocabulary.

“I have not only learned surgery terms, anatomy terms and even more, but I have also learned how to use this information in context,” Gasior said. “We talked about the importance of cultural competency and speaking to a patient in their native tongue to make them feel more comfortable.”

Zack Koeller of Jackson, Missouri, hopes the knowledge he’ll gain from the program will allow him to fill the need for Spanish-speaking caregivers in the health industry to accommodate the nation’s growing number of Spanish speaking patients.

Southeast student Zack Koeller hopes the knowledge he’ll gain from the “Spanish for Health Professions” courses will allow him to fill the need for Spanish-speaking caregivers in the health industry.

“The biggest thing I have learned through the program is how important it is for healthcare organizations to be aware of different cultures, not just the languages,” he said. “Throughout the curriculum, cultural competency is a major highlight of discussion. It is important to be cognizant of the traditions and medical practices of different cultures to better the health of all people. We observed different ways healthcare practices, like Casa de Salud in St. Louis, are connecting with patients from different cultures using their patient-centered approach.”

Koeller is a senior pursuing a degree in health communication, and while he may not have direct patient care in his career, the skills and knowledge he’s gained will be just as important.

“By learning the language and cultural skills, I will be able to better craft messages that effectively communicate the goals of healthcare organizations to different populations,” he said.

Gasior hopes to apply her skills not only for the betterment of patient care, but also to take her abilities to new areas of the health profession.

“One of the many outlets of speech and language pathology that I want to explore more is bilingual speech therapy,” she said. “If the clinician knows the language, then there will be a larger and clearer exchange of information. I will not only understand the words they are saying but also why they are saying those words. Dr. Lee-DiStefano truly emphasized that it is important to be an empathetic supporter as well as a clinician, and that is a valuable reminder that I will take with me.”

For more information about Southeast’s minor in Spanish for the health professions, contact Lee-DiStefano at