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Building community in the classroom

 Tapati Dutta and Camille Keith worked on a project to translate COVID-19 FAQs into Navajo.
Cole Davis
Fort Lewis College
Tapati Dutta and Camille Keith worked on a project to translate COVID-19 FAQs into Navajo.

Most college professors use lecturing to get information and ideas across, and lectures might be the most efficient way to help students cram for exams.

But in Dr. Tapati Dutta's public health classes at Fort Lewis College, storytelling and the personal experiences of her students take on prominent roles. Dutta aims to build a community among her students for each course, something that grows out of her upbringing in India.

On a recent visit to one of her classes, Dutta prepped students for final exams by telling the story of a botched public health outreach effort by the World Health Organization in India.

In the story, an outreach team visited a village in India. They arrived in a van with the organization's emblematic logo on the side – a snake coiled around a staff. It turned out that the World Health Organization's logo was a problem.

"The villagers who have a fear and loathing of snakes regard the serpent van suspiciously when a peculiar collection of men emerges from a van, a few undoubted in a few undoubted Indians, some strange Orientals, and some very white, white men," said Dutta to her students.

The story was Dutta's way of teaching the importance of trust in public health.

"... An angry murmur of astonishment passes through the gathered group of villagers when these men remove large mesh-covered cages from the vehicle, open the cages, and out flies a cloud of mosquitoes," said Dutta.

Dutta told her students that building trust in community engagement is essential beyond just doing the work. She leads by example – she runs her classes the same way. For many college professors, lectures and making students absorb information is the nature of the job. But Dutta works to cultivate a different type of learning environment.

Dutta's Teaching Method

Since 2019, Dutta has taught Public Health at Fort Lewis College. She grew up and studied in India and received her master's degree from the International Institute for Population Sciences in India in 2014. In 2015, she attended the School of Public Health in Indiana and received her doctorate.

Today, at Fort Lewis College, Dutta's teaching method draws on her upbringing in India and the traditional relationship between a guru and a student.

 Tapati Dutta and Camille Keith worked on a project to translate COVID-19 FAQs into Navajo.
Cole Davis
Fort Lewis College
Camille Keith took Tapati Dutta's class in Spring 2021. In that class, Dutta, Keith, and two other students brainstormed the COVID-19 FAQ translation project.

"They would all live with the guru in a place where everybody had to do their stuff themselves, from cleaning to washing to doing everything. That is the culture we grew up with," said Dutta.

Professor Dutta doesn't live with her students but wants to frame the coursework around students' life experiences. Building trust in public health campaigns is essential for Dutta in her classroom. Part of her strategy is to get to know students individually and incorporate the perspectives of the students into the coursework.

"Once the trustworthy relationship is developed, It is not that I'm trying to learn something new or impose something new, but rather building on what already is there, what I am and what they are – and building on that towards a classroom community," said Dutta.

COVID-19 FAQ Translation Project

One of Dutta's students found similarities between Dutta's teaching method and her Navajo upbringing. Camille Keith, an engineering and public health student at Fort Lewis College, sat down for an interview about her experience.

"We tell a lot of stories through talking, dancing, or craftworking. Hearing, especially from tribal elders, how they pass down the oral traditional knowledge, it was really engaging for me to feel those emotions," says Keith.

Keith took Dutta's Public Health class in Spring 2021. From that class, Dutta, Keith, and two other students brainstormed a COVID-19 public health campaign. Throughout 2021 and 2022, Dutta and her students translated COVID-19 vaccine information into Braille code and the written Navajo language. Their goal was to address health disparities among Native American people.

"It took a process to do the translations. And a lot of research was involved with identifying the different terminology because the Navajo language was very new [to me]. So there wasn't a lot of COVID language terminology out there," said Keith.

Keith reflected on Dutta's approach to teaching. She said the classroom environment helped her combine her academic work with her cultural background.

"She allowed me to take ownership of the project. Although there were some challenges, and everything was not very pretty at times, having a great mentor helped tremendously. I really gained confidence in myself," said Keith.

Clark Adomaitis is a Durango transplant from New York City. He is a recent graduate of the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY, where he focused on reporting and producing for radio and podcasts. He reported sound-rich stories on the state of recycling and compost in NYC.