Between 1971, when Dr. M. Miller joined the faculty of the newly opened University of Illinois College of Medicine in Peoria, Illinois, and today, she has seen the city’s foreign-born population more than double. She attributes much of the area’s economic success to their contributions. On a personal level, she is indebted to one female immigrant doctor in particular—one of the few people who truly supported Miller as the youngest and, initially, only full-time female faculty member on staff. Miller was only 25 at the time, and Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique had been out for less than a decade. Its message had yet to reach her workplace, where she dealt with gender-biased male doctors and an environment where “I had to fight for every inch of ground so I, too, could to be recognized.”
She brought a greater sense of awareness and paved a way for other immigrants to come to the medical school.
The immigrant doctor who mentored Miller was a Muslim obstetrician from India. As the two worked together, Miller learned how cultural diversity improved the medical school. “She taught a special class on how to do a physical exam on a female Muslim patient,” says Miller. “Some cultures are more modest. Patients will stay clothed and you work under a garment, so as to not expose them.” The American medical system, which often just asks patients to “throw on a gown and sit on the table,” can traumatize someone from a different culture or religious background, Miller explains.
This cultural understanding is vital because Peoria’s Muslim population has multiplied more than six times to about 20,000 people between 2000 and 2010, according to the Association of Religion Data Archives. Miller’s mentor made the school a destination for a more diverse student and faculty population. “She brought a greater sense of awareness and paved a way for other immigrants to come to the medical school,” she says, noting how other immigrants brought insights from their home countries, like the Chinese doctor who introduced acupuncture. “It brought this awareness that foreign is not bad; it’s good,” she says.
Miller supports immigration reform because she sees just how much immigrant communities contribute to her district. On a personal level, a female physician from India acted as her champion and advocate. On a broader level, the immigrant community is made up of highly educated people whose talents fuel the local economy.
The backbone of Peoria’s business landscape includes three major hospitals, three universities, and Caterpillar, the American Fortune 500 company that makes machinery for a global market. These institutions support Peoria’s economy and provide employment for longtime residents and newcomers alike. Miller understands that in order for these industries to flourish, they need immigration policies that allow them to hire more bright, talented candidates from around the world.
Miller hopes her political leaders can recognize what she has seen for so many years: Diversity helps communities thrive. “Open your eyes to what you have in front of you, and let your eyes see without blinders what is happening in your community and the mélange of people that make up your community,” she says.