Building cultural competence through virtual exchange

By Jill Pease

A recent virtual exchange brought together aspiring speech-language pathologists from the University of Florida and the University of Galway in Ireland for an examination of cultural competence in their chosen profession and some lively discussion on the similarities and differences between the two countries and their people.

The University of Galway is Ireland’s only bilingual university. Photo by William Murphy.

“This experience has definitely better prepared me for my future career,” said Cara Blech, a student in the UF College of Public Health and Health Professions Bachelor of Health Science communication sciences and disorders program. “I realize the importance of listening and having discussions because everyone has a different story to tell including different experiences. Having these discussions can really help best treat any client in our field.”

Dr. Sharon DiFino
Dr. Sharon DiFino

Sharon DiFino, Ph.D., CCD-SLP, a clinical assistant professor in the PHHP department of speech, language, and hearing sciences, partnered with Mary-Pat O’Malley, Ph.D. M.LITT, a lecturer of speech and language therapy at Galway’s School of Health Sciences, to develop last fall’s virtual exchange curriculum. DiFino and O’Malley both wove coursework focused on strategies for delivering culturally responsive care into their curriculum, including selected readings, self-reflection activities and use of Hofstede’s Six Dimensions of National Culture Theory and Country Comparison Tool. The virtual exchange culminated in a live, virtual session between the UF and Galway classes on November 13.

A former professor of Germanic languages who has both studied abroad and led American students participating in international educational experiences, DiFino recognizes the importance of exposing students to other cultures, even if they don’t have the opportunity to do a summer or semester abroad.

“My goal is to not only prepare my students to treat patients who may speak a different language or have a different background, but to help students feel more like global citizens,” DiFino said. “Study abroad is very expensive, and not all our students can afford it or have the time within their packed schedules. So if my students didn’t have the time nor the capital to go abroad, I was determined to have them have a little bit of that international experience.”

To help students have that opportunity, DiFino turned to virtual exchange. DiFino completed the UF International Center’s Virtual Exchange Training program for faculty and received help from Carrie Martins in the UF Office of Global Learning to match with O’Malley of the University of Galway. The University of Galway is Ireland’s only bilingual university, providing instruction in both Irish and English.

welcome slide for virtual exchange session
UF and University of Galway students met for a live, virtual session on November 13.

DiFino and O’Malley began working together last August to prepare and refine the cultural competence modules that would be introduced into DiFino’s Speech Sounds Disorders course for fourth-year PHHP students majoring in communication sciences and disorders, and O’Malley’s Professional Studies course for first-year bachelor’s degree students in speech and language therapy.

When it came time for the UF and Galway students to meet in November, students noted in their small group discussions a major difference in their countries’ educational requirements for practice. While U.S. states require a master’s degree and nine months of professional experience before licensure as a speech-language pathologist, in Ireland, a bachelor’s degree in speech and language therapy is the entry-level degree for professional practice.

There were several similarities, the students found, including their favorite place in the world (the No.1 pick: at home with family and friends), shared tastes in music, TV and movies, and an affinity for the word “y’all.”

“This experience showed me that it only takes a couple of minutes of intentional conversation and communication to get to know someone’s culture a little bit better,” said PHHP communication sciences and disorders student Charlotte Maloney. “This can be applied to my career as a future clinician who is bound to see a diverse set of patients whose cultural background might be unfamiliar to me. Getting to know your patients and how they experience the world is an incredibly important skill to have as a clinician, as well as a skill that, if achieved, allows you to be an empathetic and understanding global citizen.”