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RISE Developers and Instructors Share Their Insights

Naomi BenderNaomi Bender, Director for WSU Native American Health Sciences program
Personally, I still am pinching myself. To see the culmination of the hard work of our teams, tribal partners, supporters, funders, educators—it was nothing short of fulfilling. I had many emotional moments this summer, all the gratitude from students was overwhelming. This is work that I do for a living, but this summer elevated the work to a status of making good on promises—not only is our institution making good on its promises as a land-grant institution and its commitment to service, but a promise is being realized to our tribes and the health care that was promised to them by our country.

If we continue to see students uplifted in the matter they are, if NAHS has a part in expanding the workforce in Indian Country, if we’re providing indigenous elements in our curriculum for both Native and non-Native students, and if that in turn improves health outcomes in tribal communities—that is pretty fantastic and makes me feel incredibly blessed.

Particularly the cultural tenets aspect of the RISE program and the ways we’re expanding and teaching education. RISE was originally about MCAT preparation, additional support in sciences and mentorship from med students. Applying cultural tenets to the RISE curriculum provided a substantial piece about Native American health and health care—this is so important considering our students are interested in returning to their communities to serve. Along with their education, they now also have knowledge about their people, pre- and post-contact, from federal Indian policy and laws to environmental impacts, to cultural humility and traditional elements of healing. Students have a better understanding and respect for who they’ll be working with, addressing the systemic and holistic needs of patients for healthier outcomes in Native communities.

David GarciaDavid Garcia, WSU Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine, Assistant Dean for Equity and Inclusion
My areas of responsibility with the RISE Summer Academy were really the architecture of the program. We wanted to make sure that everything we did centralized the Native participants’ lived experiences and what they’ve come to know culturally. It’s a paradigm shift from ‘we’re designing this program for all’ to ‘we’re designing this with you in mind’.

We create these programs based on three pillars 1) identity development, in terms of a better understanding of who they are in relation to the environments they’re in. 2) Community building—we know students who feel they belong within a setting, or developing a cadre of individuals as a collective, is supportive and allows for authenticity and the support students need along the journey. And then lastly, the focus on 3) system navigation—oftentimes within academia, there are unspoken rules. We are sharing the unspoken rules so individuals who are coming through the program have a better understanding of how to navigate the systems, but also to be able to access the resources that others may be already be aware of.

Investment in pathway programs is not only a good investment for the individual, but really, for the state of Washington and for the country.

Leila HarrisonLeila Harrison, WSU Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine, Senior Associate Dean for Admissions & Student Affairs
It is so important that everyone in our country has the opportunity to see a physician who understands their culture, their language, their history. This lends to better quality care. Programs like RISE open the door for these opportunities. There are so few Native physicians. The overall diversity needs to increase in medical schools.

One of the hard things, in general, for any population, but especially with disadvantaged populations, is understanding what medical schools are looking for in admissions. Native populations often don’t have resources or mentors to gain insight into the admissions process. My role this summer was really about demystifying the admissions process, to give the students insights about application procedures and strategies to help them stand out to medical schools.

Esteban HereviaEsteban Herevia, WSU Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine, Pathway and Inclusion Coordinator
My role is helping underserved and underrepresented students see themselves in health sciences and also see themselves all the way into medical school.

The RISE Summer Academy was an opportunity for Native students who are pursuing careers in medicine to not only explore what it looks like for them to become Native health providers, but also what does it look like for them to get into medical school. We had a number of students who came to us wanting to learn how to master the MCAT, but they also came to us with a fear that they were not going to be understood or that their own story wouldn’t be acknowledged.

My role is acknowledging the history of these students, help them to acknowledge it, but also to give students introductions to the basics, as well as connect them to resources. Not necessarily trying to ask them to fit what currently exists, but translating it. It’s a lot of moving pieces around to make science make sense, re-shifting and reframing. We’ve been particularly successful with students coming out of programs saying that they feel more confident. Their MCAT practice test scores are reflecting they feel more prepared.

I have to say how much of an honor it is to know the influence RISE is having on their lives. We’re literally shifting their outcomes. What we connected the students to, the type of knowledge we instilled in them, the type of skills and studying and preparing for medical school—it was something they never would have experienced.

Margo HillMargo Hill, Member of the Spokane Tribe, Tribal Attorney and Tribal Court Judge
I believe that the WSU RISE program is not only a bootcamp for Native students who want to go to medical school, it is an opportunity to give them the history of our people and to understand the health needs of Indian Country. It helps develop the passion and the purpose for Native students to go to medical school.

The cultural tenets of this program are also so crucial. These students’ histories are important, where they come from matters. That was something that was very powerful about the RISE summer program. The cultural tenets helped the young Natives by validating their tribal cultural knowledge. The RISE program pays honor and respect to our tribal culture in a way that Native Americans do not hear about in schools.

I can’t even begin to tell you how important it is to these students that agencies like Indian Health Service and Empire Health Foundation have provided funding for these opportunities. Often in tribal communities, we aren’t exposed to all the possibilities. We don’t have aunts and uncles, or parents, who have gone to medical school. We just need to see it in ourselves. When funders provide money for these Native students, they provide them with better exposure to biomedical research, they gain exposure to the chemistry skills that they need, they can prep with others who are like them for their MCATs—these are opportunities that young Natives don’t get.

When funders give Native students the opportunity to come together and meet other students like them, with the same goals, it means the whole world. It says we believe in you. There are a lot of people that tell us a different story, that said, ‘we don’t believe in you’ or ‘you’re just an Indian kid from the reservation’. We’re told these things all the time. We’re disciplined in our school districts. We’re looked at differently. We’re not given the same opportunities that mainstream America.

When funders provide these opportunities to Natives, we can rise to the challenge. Our young Native people are smart, they are diligent, they are disciplined, but they need the opportunity, they need programs like RISE and programs that support early exposure to STEM and they need pathways that help them achieve their goals.

Will JamesWil James, Member of the Swinomish Tribe, Tribal Medical Director
Native communities are built upon inclusion. No one is equal, but everybody is able to rise to the level of their ability. There is a place for everybody. Popular culture is more disposable. That is the fear these Native students have, that they’re not good enough. They know they don’t quite fit into the system because it’s so foreign to them. We’re trying to provide students with a place to breathe, where they can interact with people like them.

The cultural tenets that are part of RISE are intentional. The intention is to let students be who they are and know they can make it in this world, by providing community. Community is at the heart of the Native mindset; we’re taught to be active participants in our community, and we look to expand scholarly community into all areas of the education process.

The goal is to serve the people and in order to do that you have to take into account who the people are and acknowledge there’s some differences in the population. Not acknowledging or allowing for differences is not serving the entire community. If the goal is to fund health sciences to train providers to take care of the people of Washington state, it makes sense to be all inclusive. Society deserves to train the next generation of healers.

Many natives have been cut off from a cultural experience and they’re thirsty for it. Acknowledging that history lights a fire, it fuels passion. The reason I am at Washington State is because there are people at Washington State who get it and are willing to give Natives a chance.