Occupational therapy department honored for DEI efforts

Contact: Joel Krauss

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Western Michigan University's Department of Occupational Therapy was recognized for its commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion for faculty, staff and students as the recipient of the College of Health and Human Services' Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion inaugural DEI Distinction Award.

Other factors considered in the nomination process are engagement and collaboration, and how a project or academic unit promotes learning to create transformative change in Western's CHHS community.

(Left to right) Dean Ron Cisler, Dr. Betty Dennis, Dr. Nancy Hock, Sarah Aguilar, Shreena Shah and Dr. Maureen Mickus at the June presentation

The innovative study, "Use of Storytelling with Virtual Reality to Improve Cultural Awareness among Allied Health Students," was aimed at cultural understanding and featured faculty-student collaboration between Dr. Maureen Mickus, professor in the OT department, and Sarah Aguilar and Shreena Shah, two second-year OTD students. The team also received technical support from Nathan Wollensak from the CHHS IT department and funding support from the Sammons Center Innovation and Research in Occupation Based Technology.

As part of the study, international students from India, China and Mexico used virtual reality headsets to lead tours of their home countries with 21 OT and physical therapy students. The virtual experience took place using the Wander application for Oculus Quest, which is based on the "street view" in Google Maps, a familiar format to most students.

After a narrated virtual tour, the guides and participants engaged in a discussion about challenges in adapting to cultural differences in a new country.

"Seeing the physical environments and getting a glimpse of the ways people from diverse cultures live helped spark important conversations between the student groups," says Mickus. "In addition, it was an opportunity for international students to proudly share their cultures in an engaging and interactive way."

"The first time we did it, the international student leading the tour wound up in tears," adds Aguilar. "We were concerned, but the fact is, he was homesick and overwhelmed to see his hometown. It wound up being a positive experience for all of us."

(Left to right) Dean Ron Cisler, Angelina Tavakalyan, Sarah Anderson, Dr. Betty Dennis and Provost Julian Vasquez-Heilig at the college event in April

"It's very powerful for international students to lead these tours, and eye-opening for American students" says Shah. "You see three or four people commuting on a motorcycle. Here, you think that looks pretty odd, but in other countries, it's just how people get around. It was fascinating for the American students to see that and have meaningful conversations about these differences."

"This is a wonderful project to receive the inaugural DEI Distinction Award," says Dr. Betty Dennis, director of the CHHS Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. "These students have given us an example of something that can and should be done within the college. And it's the hope of the DEI office to bring this project to a lunch and learn to share with a broader audience."

The research team has submitted a proposal to present the project at the American Occupational Therapy conference in 2024. They are also developing a manuscript for a scholarly publication based on the study findings.

The OT department officially received the award at the college's spring breakfast gathering in April. However, many OT faculty and students were unavailable at that gathering because of a national conference happening at the same time. In June, participating OT students and faculty members were recognized at an informal gathering in the dean's office.