Filip Jelenak described some of his Serbian family’s “lighthearted traditions” for celebrating Christmas. Nikhil Pallikonda addressed questions he’s frequently received about aspects of his Indian culture, such as arranged marriage, the caste system and Hindu people’s beliefs about cows. And LeAndre Kennedy explained the frustration he sometimes feels when asked about his “familial past,” because his ancestral history, like that of most Black Americans, was wiped out by the transatlantic slave trade.
“This group is a relatively new group of people, considering we just gained the right to be treated as ‘equal’ humans in America less than a century ago, and got the right to be considered people not long before that,” he stated. “I don’t say this to spread shame or guilt, but to spread awareness.”
LeAndre, a second-year doctor of podiatric medicine and master of anatomy student at DMU; Nikhil, a second-year doctor of osteopathic medicine student; and Filip, a first-year osteopathic medical student, provided information and perspectives in an inaugural DMU Diversity Newsletter distributed in February. The three students are their classes’ diversity liaisons and produced the newsletter to increase understanding and spark meaningful conversations.
“’Diversity’ and ‘culture’ are more than buzzwords for residency applications, and we hope this newsletter taps into our collective intellectual curiosities to learn from each other, about each other,” Nikhil wrote in the newsletter’s foreword. “Our country is built on the values of a few men who believed in freedom that was once unmatched in the world. Yet, as children sing ‘this land was made for you and me’ in schools, it seems that is anything but the case for millions of minorities around our country.”
The newsletter emerged from conversations Filip and Nikhil had during the winter holiday break. “We thought it was best to use the newsletter as diversity liaisons. The main thing was to start writing,” Filip says. “DMU’s multicultural affairs office offers a variety of great programs, and it adds even more to the DMU community to hear from students.”
Born in Serbia, he and his family moved to the United States, after a brief stint in New Zealand, in 2001.
“All of my extended family still lives in Serbia so throughout the years despite growing up in the U.S., we have kept some old traditions alive,” he wrote. One “Serbian Christmas” tradition they enjoy is the cutting of the “cesnica,” a bread or cake that his mother tosses a gold coin in while preparing it. Each guest gets a piece, with one piece saved for the house.
“It is said that whoever has the gold coin in their piece was the most exceptional from the previous year,” he wrote.
Nikhil moved from India to the United States when he was eight years old. “I was suddenly thrown into this diverse environment,” he says. “It became natural to me to explain what I was eating for lunch and the music I was listening to. These conversations were the building blocks of friendships.”
The styles of the students’ essays ranged from comedic to straightforward to serious. In his article about Indian culture, Nikhil advised readers to “never ask any South Asian what caste their family belongs to”; while the caste system is no longer legal in India, caste discrimination still exists. He also dispelled the myth that Hindus worship cows. Rather, in Hindu mythology, “cows are viewed as representations of Mother Earth because they can bear milk to provide nutrition and growth, and are symbolic nurturers.”
In his essay, LeAndre emphasized that “black culture is not a singular thing.”
“It is a very fluid culture, 100 percent influenced by the region of America you hail from because essentially, this culture has no known history outside of America. It was lost, and unless you take a DNA test or build a time machine it will not be found,” he wrote. “If you see a Black American with a European last name there is a good chance that they’re descendants of the transatlantic slave trade.”
The students are working to recruit classmates to contribute to future issues of the newsletter.
“Diversity is not just race, but it’s the collage of experiences that shape you as a person,” Nikhil says. “If nothing else, I hope this project makes us more culturally competent. Diversity makes you a better physician for your patients.”