Navajo Cultural Immersion Takes College of Nursing Students to New Heights

A three-credit-hour elective Navajo Reservation Cultural Immersion course was the basis for a recent week-long immersion at the 16 million acre Navajo reservation in Arizona. The trip was led by Ashland University nursing faculty Sharon See and Cindy Dowds. Prior to the immersion, students studied culture care theory and collected baseline holding knowledge of the Navajo people.

Both See and Dowds had a vision for teaching cultural competency to students through an immersion experience for several years. In spring 2011, they received an email from a former student who was working at Fort Defiance Indian Hospital on the Navajo reservation. He put them in touch with the hospital recruiter and arranged a visit in which they met some key contacts in the Navajo community.

“We explored the area and realized this would be a great immersion experience for our students,” said Dowds. “We have both traveled quite a bit but were shocked that this was actually like entering a third world country.” From there, See and Dowds developed the course and the immersion, sent it through the committees both at Ashland University and at the hospital in Fort Defiance, and received approval to do it.

On the reservation, students observed home care nurses at Tsehootsooi Medical Center in Fort Defiance and worked with children at the Navajo Youth Center in Window Rock. “The intent was to learn about the culture and to understand the blending of Western medicine and traditional native healing practices,” Dowds explained.

During one of their home visits, students were thrilled to meet one of the only two living Navajo code talkers, Wilford Buck. During World War II the code talkers' primary job was to talk, transmitting information on tactics and troop movements, orders and other vital battlefield communications over telephones and radios. Because they spoke in Navajo, the information was unintelligible to the Japanese. Students went on many other memorable home visits. 

Other highlights of the trip included holding two picnics for the children at the youth center, hiking the majestic Canyon De Chelly with a Navajo guide, and visiting Aaron Sams, a well-known traditional healer.

Throughout the immersion, students took photos to be compiled for a photographic representation of the Purnell Model for Cultural Competence, which has been accepted for a poster presentation at the Transcultural Nursing Society Conference in Orlando, Fla. in October 2012. The course will be offered again in 2013.

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