Coffee, conversation connect international community
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The University of Mississippi Medical Center attracts talent from six continents. However, even these physicians, scientists, professionals and students may need help navigating local customs, language and rules.
Take for example Dr. Lili Shi, a postdoctoral fellow in pathology from China. When she found out her nine-year-old daughter's new school has a dress code, Shi knew where to ask for advice.
UMMC's Office of International Services provides counseling on visa applications and other documentation needed to work in the United States. But it's not all paperwork. On Friday mornings at 8:30, the office hosts a coffee hour in AE-11. The welcoming environment and cross-cultural fellowship gathers people from around the world around a table for a snack and casual conversation to start their day.
“This event provides an opportunity for growth and learning, and to help internationals to adjust faster to [Jackson] and to UMMC,” said Julieta Mendez, director of international services. “Our goal is to help them integrate faster and easier.”
Within a couple minutes, Mendez and Karla Velez, associate human resources service partner for international services, helped Shi find out what her daughter needs for school next week.
“Everyone here is so nice,” said Shi, who came to Jackson only a few days earlier. “I am very grateful.”
Trainees from around the world, including, from left, Tarek Ibrahim of Lebanon, Marija Kuna of Croatia, Dr. Lili Shi of China and Dr. Parash Parajuli of Nepal, gather for coffee and conversation.
This helpfulness has earned Mendez and Velez the unofficial title of “godmother” around the office.
“When you experience a new place and a new culture, you don't always know what to do or where to go" for assistance, said Dr. Norma Ojeda, an associate professor of pediatrics who attends coffee hour regularly.
“This meeting provides a friendly environment where you can ask these questions. It makes our whole week,” said Ojeda, originally from Paraguay.
“Some weeks, we bring people from the community to talk about topics such as taxes, investments, benefits, driver's licenses, or whatever we think could be helpful,” Mendez said. She also keeps them informed about local cultural events and opportunities to be involved in the community.
For instance, Irene Arguello, a clinical researcher in pediatrics, started a holiday toy drive for children served by the School of Nursing's school clinics in Rolling Fork and Mayersville.
Arguello, from Paraguay, visits the clinics as part of an ongoing study. When she saw how little the children have in their schools - “they were each coloring on one tiny part of the same coloring book page,” she said - she started collecting toys for them to play with in the clinic waiting room. By enlisting the help of the coffee hour constituents, the drive was so successful that they continue to collect.
Irene Arguello and members of the international community collect toys for children being treated at the SON's Rolling Fork and Mayersville clinics.
Arguello suspects the kids sometimes go to the clinics just to play with the gifts, but it also helps them feel a bit better when they are sick.
“It motivates these children who struggle in so many ways,” she said.
Mendez said UMMC has about 220 international employees with visas, which permit them to work in the United States for a set period. However, hundreds more are either permanent residents or naturalized citizens.
“Our international employees and students make great contributions to UMMC and its mission,” she said. “They are super important.”
International employees are important to health care across the country as well. Twenty-two percent of physicians working in the United States received their medical degree in another country, and many work in states like Mississippi, which has a shortage of health care workers.
As these global professionals “think about where to go next in their careers,” Mendez said, it is vital for UMMC to promote retention. By helping them navigate the legal and cultural landscape and showing them what Jackson has to offer, the office of international services hopes these employees continue to work and serve in Mississippi.
But if it's a Friday morning, they might just be thinking about going to coffee hour.
Environmentally conscious coffee hour attendees bring their own mugs to the meeting.