By Wendy Sarubbi | November 2, 2015 11:51 am

Diversity Week 2015 at the UCF College of Medicine gave faculty, staff and students the chance to flash back and meet a childhood favorite, Sonia Manzano, known to many as “Maria” from Sesame Street.

The Bronx native spoke about her 44-year run as an actress on the iconic children’s television show, and the importance of education in helping to bring equality to diverse groups. She emphasized how a lack of knowledge – not a disinterest in wellness — often results in health disparities. She described her own turbulent upbringing as an example and how she used her role on Sesame Street to show young people the importance of education. “In my house, if you were reading, it was considered being lazy,” she recalled. “I always tried to remember that there is a kid watching who is dealing with that in their house also.”

Manzano traveled to the College of Medicine after serving as keynote speaker at UCF’s October 12 Diversity Breakfast on the main campus. She stressed the importance of continuing the fight for fairness and equality. That need extends to making sure physicians are culturally competent. “We are becoming a more and more diverse society, and to be a good doctor, you have to be aware of the different cultures that you’ll be working with,” Manzano said.

Dr. Lisa Barkley, the medical school’s assistant dean for diversity and inclusion, echoed that sentiment. “We want to make sure that our learning environments support understanding of all our differences,” she said. “That makes our students, faculty and staff stronger at what they do.”

Dr. Barkley stressed the importance of reflecting on diversity at the College of Medicine, and encouraging candid conversations about our differences and similarities. “Ms. Manzano’s message of showing the value in differences on TV were really key to what we want to teach about cultural competency and eliminate health disparities,” she said.

Manzano kicked off Diversity Week events that included a topic that is often considered taboo—mental illness. During an October 14 discussion, students, faculty and staff were joined by Victoria Maxwell—a self-proclaimed “Bi-Polar Princess” via video conferencing.

Maxwell’s forum began with a monologue in which the public speaker and mental health educator explained her painful family history of mental illness, and coming to terms with her own diagnosis as an adult. She chronicled the variety of doctors she has encountered on her mental health journey, some of whom were judgmental, while others tried to coddle her. It took months before she found a physician who acted as a partner in her treatment. “I’m not to blame for my illness, but I’m responsible for my health,” Maxwell said of her new outlook on bi-polar disorder after finding the right physician. “Somehow it takes away the feeling that I could have done things better, it just means I’m understanding the colors of the condition that I have.”

The student Narrative Medicine group, which works to explore the experiences of patients and physicians through the art of storytelling, hosted the discussion. “We felt like mental illness would add another element to the diversity conversation,” said second-year M.D. student and Narrative Medicine President Danwei Wu. “I hope students walk away with a deeper understanding of how complex these illnesses are.”

Throughout Diversity Week, students, faculty and staff were invited to pin their city or country of origin on a large map in the atrium of the medical education building. They were also encouraged to answer discussion questions about what Diversity & Inclusion means to them.

Diversity and Inclusion Coordinator Lani Stephens said the activities were designed to help colleagues engage in real discussions about diversity. Stephens said many participants discussed diversity in terms beyond race and culture. “We had many people comment on diversity as the access to opportunity for all people, and I think that’s a really important point,” she said.

In a video introducing Diversity Week, Dr. Deborah German, vice president for medical affairs and dean, encouraged the college to continue to explore diversity and inclusion after the week was over. “I hope you will be open to new perspectives and opinions, and ask good questions about where we are, where we’re going, and how we can get there in a better way, together,” she said.

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