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Yuliana López ’18 has helped dozens of Spanish-speaking dairy farm workers as a volunteer interpreter at the Open Door Clinic in Middlebury.

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As a Volunteer Medical Interpreter, Yuliana López Finds a Connection to Home

May 7, 2018

MIDDLEBURY, Vt. – When Yuliana López was a first-year, she and her cohort of Posse scholars decided to host one of the free community suppers at the local Congregational Church in Middlebury—meals that typically feed 200–250 people. López was eager to share her heritage with the community, and the group decided on a traditional Mexican meal.

“She took the lead, and we drove to Costco to buy all the tortillas and beans,” recalled math professor and mentor Steve Abbott, “but there was no recipe. I said ‘What do you mean, there’s no recipe? We have to feed hundreds of people!’ She said, ‘Well there’s not. This is just how my mom does it.’”

That Friday afternoon making the meal, Abbott continued, “They’re making flautas, which means there’s five steps. And there’s still no recipe. They’re making rice in these enormous, industrial-sized pots. And you can see Yuli sitting there and she’s on the phone again with her mom. And then Yuli says, ‘OK, do this, do this.”

Abbott said he finally left for an appointment, but admits that “I also needed to leave because it was fantastically unlikely that anything good was going to happen. I came back an hour and a half later and there was a Mexican meal for everybody, and it was great.”

Abbott added, “Yuli lights up the minute you start talking about community service.”

Now a premed senior majoring in molecular biology and biochemistry with a minor in global health, López has brought this same fearlessness and generosity of spirit to her volunteer service as a medical interpreter at Addison County’s Open Door Clinic.

“The Open Door Clinic means so much to me,” said López. “It provided me with a family that allowed me to feel comfortable in a space where my bilingual tongue was appreciated. The clinic was my ‘escape’ from the Middlebury bubble, and it served as a constant reminder of why I do what I do—study and challenge myself—and who I do it for—the Latinx community. Just stepping out of Middlebury College and going to the Open Door Clinic, that’s been my heaven. It’s given me fresh air and really motivated me to recharge.”

Middlebury's Open Door Clinic is a free health clinic for uninsured and under-insured adults in Addison County, Vermont.

Based in the town of Middlebury, the Open Door Clinic provides free health care to community members who are uninsured or underinsured. The clinic sees over 800 patients a year, and in 2017 alone tallied 1,365 patient visits to health care providers. Around 60 percent of those seen at Open Door Clinic are migrant farmworkers—a bedrock part of the state’s $2.2 billion dairy industry. Most come from Mexico; most speak only Spanish.

The vast majority of student volunteers serve as medical interpreters, said Open Door Executive Director Heidi Sulis.

“The students are really integral and critical to providing linguistic and culturally competent care,” said Sulis. “Our job would be much, much harder, and how we deliver care would look very different without them. In fact, when we look at our colleagues in the northern tier of the state and what they’re grappling with, they don’t have a Middlebury College in their backyard. They have many more barriers around language access. We’re in a unique position.

“The student interpreters are literally giving voice to a patient who is facing these language barriers in this setting, in this community. I think it’s impressive and powerful. I think it’s really powerful.”

Around 15 to 30 Middlebury students volunteer each year, said Sulis. And since 2013, the College has sponsored a 10-week paid internship at the clinic through its Privilege & Poverty program.

López began volunteering with the Open Door Clinic the first semester of her first year at Middlebury.

“I remember seeing a flyer that said ‘the Open Door Clinic’: there’s an interpreter opportunity; you have to come to this training; it’s all day on Saturday; Spanish speakers are welcome. I’m like, whoa! Spanish speakers! That was it!”

López grew up in a largely Spanish-speaking neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side, and she credits much of her success to that supportive community. Much of her schooling was bilingual, and at home the family spoke mostly Spanish. From an early age, López acted as interpreter for family members at medical appointments. And seeing the ways in which her community was medically underserved lit a fire in her. By elementary school, she’d set her sights on becoming a doctor.

López brought that dream to Middlebury.

“I always wanted to go into the health field,” said López. “I said I wanted to go to college, get my education, and return to serve the community back home that really needed it. That’s always been my dream.”

The oldest daughter of Mexican immigrants, López says one of the aspects of working as an Open Door volunteer interpreter that’s been most moving for her has been the patients’ pride in her accomplishments. Patients she had just met would tell her she was an “orgullo Mexicano,” or source of Mexican pride.

“There’s this connection,” she said. “A lot of the patients ask, What do you want to do? Some assume that I’m a doctor or that I’m going to be a doctor soon. And they’re like, ‘We can’t wait until you serve us. We can’t wait until we call you Dr. López.’ That’s a motivation that I have carried throughout my four years at Middlebury.”

López’s cultural and linguistic expertise has been invaluable, said Sulis.

“We all defer to Yuli,” said Sulis. “When there are a bunch of 28-to-58-year-olds saying, ‘Yuli, how would you frame this? What do you think is the right approach?’—we do that because we want to get it right culturally and linguistically.”

Good medical interpreters need much more than solid language abilities, noted Open Door Patient Services Coordinator Josh Lanney. For example, it’s important to keep the patient and doctor focused on each other, rather than on the interpreter. And if the interpreter notices that a patient is just nodding and saying yes but not really understanding or agreeing with something, then it’s the interpreter’s job to step into the role of “cultural broker.”

“Yuli communicates very effectively what is being said, communicates completely, doesn’t omit or change anything. And when it’s appropriate, she will serve as a clarifier,” said Lanney.

Different patients might need different reassurances, López observed. To a male patient who’s feeling awkward about using a female interpreter, she might say, “Don't think about me, I am just here to help you. Just say what you have to say, and I’ll just simply interpret.” Or if a female patient holds back in answering questions on the mental health screening, “I just kind of give her a moment to think about it, I repeat the sentence twice; I repeat it in a different way for her to think about it. She might be going through a depression, and then she sort of opens up to the provider and says, ‘Well, I have been recently feeling sad,’ and then we figure it out.”

In addition to her four years as a volunteer interpreter, last summer López deepened her understanding of public health as a Privilege & Poverty intern at the clinic.

“What I really appreciate about Yuliana as a student of public health and global health, is that she does not treat it like a spectator sport,” said Pam Berenbaum, global health professor and coordinator of the College’s global health program.

“She has a true public health heart, where she’s committed to being in solidarity with the community as a member of it. And I think that the fact that she got involved with Open Door Clinic really speaks to that.”

To be an effective interpreter, Berenbaum observed, “You have to be open to fully experiencing someone else’s life and wanting to represent their life, and that requires true humility and true compassion, and that is really who she is. One thing that I really like about her style of leadership is that she’s so humble and compassionate. Yuli is someone who leads through integrity and through being such an open and humble and loving and welcoming person that it makes you want to be a part of whatever it is that she's doing.”

Abbott concurs: “Yuli has a very, very kind spirit. She has a very gentle nature when you meet her. And that overlays this really strong and driven and determined spirit that has produced one of Middlebury’s outstanding seniors.”

López’s profound influence as a student leader is exemplified through her cofounding of UR-STEM, a student organization dedicated to mentoring students underrepresented in STEM fields. Additionally, she was selected as a member of Middlebury’s first cohort in the BOLD Women’s Leadership Network. And López came to Middlebury as both a Posse Foundation and a Gates Millennium scholar.

After graduation, López will be immersing herself more deeply in public health by working for Chicago’s Health and Medicine Policy Research Group, an organization devoted to promoting social justice and challenging inequities in health and health care. Beyond that, she plans to pursue a joint degree in medicine and public health.

Said UR-STEM faculty sponsor Susan DeSimone, “It gives me a great deal of hope to know people like Yuli. Young people that are, I'll say with certainty, going to change the world.”

Story by Gaen Murphree; Photo by Todd Balfour

3 Comments

Yuli, So proud of you as part of the Posse Family. Thank you for showing the mexican heart that leaders like you own. Middlebury Family , thank you for letting Yuli show how important is give migrants an opportunity to give back to this Country. Wonderful story that left tears in my soul ❤️

by Adriana Masias (not verified)

Yuli, congratulations and thank you for all your amazing contributions! Thanks, too, to our wonderful colleagues at the Open Door Clinic--and for all you do with and for our community, and for the way you have integrated and mentored our students. You all are an inspiration! Terrific feature, Gaen. Thank you, too! I think this epitomizes our work at its very best. Cheers, Tiffany Director, Center for Community Engagement Internship Director, Privilege & Poverty Academic Cluster

by Tiffany Nourse ... (not verified)

Yuli, your article is truly inspiring and admirable. I'm a certified medical interpreter from the south side of Chicago, and it was a pleasure learning about your experience. Much respect and support to everything you do!

by Gerardo Hernandez (not verified)

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