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Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, WSU Native American Health Sciences still able to deliver programs remotely, impacting the lives, minds, and hearts of many

November is Native American Heritage Month, a time to celebrate rich and diverse cultures, traditions, and histories and to acknowledge the important contributions of Native people. Heritage Month is also an opportune time for WSU Native American Health Sciences (NAHS) to share progress, amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, specific to its continued quest to increase the number of Natives and indigenous peoples practicing in health care.

“As 2020 has been a year of significant challenge due to a global pandemic and heightened acts of racism and violence, it was more important than ever that our program continue its critical work,” said NAHS Director, Naomi Bender, who is also an indigenous Quechua (Peru) woman. “This means providing safe and meaningful educational experiences for Native students interested in health care careers.”

When the pandemic hit in early March, the NAHS team pivoted its focus to virtual, yet impactful educational opportunities including pathways expansion, ongoing community and campus initiatives, and the continued development of a new Center for Native American Student Success.

Said WSU Health Sciences Vice President, Daryll DeWald, “One of the primary reasons health disparities still persist in Native populations is a shortage of Native physicians, practitioners and researchers. One of the best ways to decrease health disparities among these populations is to increase access and support for Native students on our campus and bolster the overall number in health care and research.”

For Native High School Students: Native STEAM Summer Research Institute
NAHS combined the resources and donations of several tribes, non-profit organizations, institutional partners, and a trust into a singular online institute dedicated to health occupations and research, accounting for science, technology, engineering, arts, and math (STEAM) for 26 students from 22 tribes from across six states.

Said Native STEAM student participant and Navajo tribe member, Sky Harper, “Throughout history, indigenous peoples have not been represented to the fullest in health professions, which is often due to the intimidating path to earn a degree. I feel that if others were aware of this program, and participated, the path to the health field would be less intimidating and would ultimately open many doors for youth, and further our people.”

Natives Applying to Medical School: Reimagine IndianS into MedicinE (RISE) Summer Academy
This summer’s RISE academy, a six‑week, virtual enrichment program, provided undergraduate or recently graduated Native students wanting to attend medical school with support in biomedical sciences and MCAT exam preparation.

WSU Native American Health Sciences and the WSU Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine joined two other Northwest universities (Oregon Health & Science University and University of California Davis School of Medicine) in working with the Northwest Portland Area Indian Health Board on RISE. The collaboration is supported by a nearly $1 million, five‑year grant from IHS’s Indians Into Medicine Program, as well as more than $1 million in financial and in‑kind contributions from project partners.

Only about 0.4% of all working U.S. physicians are Native American. Just 44 of the 21,863 enrolled medical students nationwide last year identified as Native American alone.

Said RISE participant and Colville tribe member, Marshand Vasquez, “Growing up, I never saw a physician who was Native. I came across this dream of mine to pursue medicine, but not seeing anyone like me do it was defeating. But through RISE, I’ve been able to find others. Being able to pursue medicine and seeing the possible influence it could make in Indian Country and on the health care inequities we face—I know that pursing medicine, I’ll be able to make an impact.”

Natives Applying to Medical School: Wy’East Pathway Program
The Wy’east post-bac pathway is a component of the RISE program, built on the early success of OHSU’s 10-month program that offers citizens of federally recognized tribes a pathway to improve their academic skills and be successful in the medical school admissions process.

This past summer, Wy’east was expanded to the WSU Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine, when the college selected two Native aspiring physicians to attend. The college will continue to select up to four students per year, over four years, for the program with the hope of having them matriculate to the WSU College of Medicine upon completion.

There are three major components to the pathway:

  • academic preparation for medical school (including MCAT prep course)
  • professional preparation for the rigor of medical school
  • culturally relevant experiential learning

Center for Native American Health Opens January 2021
WSU NAHS is expanding its support for Native students, faculty members and prospective students with its Center for Native American Health, opening in January 2021. The center is supported by a $250,000 grant from the Empire Health Foundation.

Located on the WSU Health Sciences campus in the Health Education & Research Building, the center will feature a culturally based clinical patient exam room, with Native providers and clinicians leading telehealth and educational opportunities. Among many other features, the space will also offer indoor and outdoor healing elements to meet the unique needs of indigenous students, staff and faculty.

Concluded Bender, “If this year has reminded us of anything, it is that we as indigenous people are resilient and committed to the health and wellness of our people. Pandemics have afflicted our indigenous communities for centuries, and yet we have persisted, persevered, and found ways to carry on our legacy through the stories and wisdom of our elders, and the dreams and pathways of our youth and generations to come.”

During the week of Nov. 16 – Nov. 20, 2020, NAHS will further commemorate Native American Heritage Month by offering several virtual events and hosting speakers to help educate audiences about tribes, to raise awareness about the unique challenges Native people have faced both historically and in the present, and the ways in which tribal citizens have worked to conquer these challenges. For more information, visit www.spokane.wsu.edu.