The University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center recently graduated a record 39 American Indians in the health professions.
“We could almost open our own hospital!” quips Tassy Parker, Seneca, who holds several positions at the university, including director of the Center for Native American Health. Established as part of the Health Sciences Center in 2002, the CNAH partners with New Mexico’s 22 tribes around health issues, addresses health disparities and runs a student recruitment and retention program.
The May 2015 graduates included 9 MDs, 17 nurses, 4 doctors of pharmacy, 2 physician assistants, 2 dental hygienists, a master of public health and a master of health education. Three students earned bachelor’s degrees in medical labs.
One of the signature programs at the CNAH is student development. “We make lots of visits to really remote areas to talk to students about opportunities here at the university,” says Parker.
Families are welcome at CNAH presentations. “We often ask the families to come so they can understand what the process is, how long their children will be gone from the community, how do they know that they will be OK? We try to get the families engaged as much as possible because we know that part of the success of our students depends on the support of their families and communities.”
Other programs at the university also recruit American Indian students into the medical field. The New Mexico legislature funds a BA/MD program in collaboration with the UNM College of Arts and Sciences and the UNM School of Medicine. Students apply in their senior year of high school and if they are accepted they join a cohort of about 25 students. They stay together for four years of college, then take the entrance exam for medical school. If they get high enough scores, they are automatically admitted to the UNM School of Medicine, Parker explains.
Kenna Sheak, Creek/Cherokee, was a beneficiary of that program. She was born and went to school in Grants, New Mexico, then started college at UNM and has pretty much stayed there, she says. Sheak just began her residency in pediatrics at the university’s School of Medicine.
Sheak describes another key advantage offered to American Indian students through the CNAH. The Dr. Ervin Lewis Native American Student Center is a gathering place for students and a resource room. Sheak says the group who frequents the center “is very welcoming and open. It was really nice that there was a community already set up and you had people you could go talk to. If you needed help there were people who could help. Or commiserate with you if you were having a hard time.” The center has books and reference materials, computers, printers and a phone for students to use, as well as a refrigerator, microwave and sink for breaks.
“Because there are so few Native American students here I don’t think we would find each other if it weren’t for the student center. Our schedules are different and we are in different classes and different programs,” Dana Wilson, who just graduated with a doctorate in pharmacy, says. “It was helpful to know there were other Native American students around going through the same thing that you were going through.”
Another function of the CNAH is to help students find ways to pay for medical school. “We have a number of options,” says Parker, including “financial aid available through the federal government and tribal funding streams. The university itself can also provide some scholarships.”
IHS Indians Into Medicine grants have been available for the past four years. The current grant period has ended, but Parker says she hopes IHS will be able to add another IIM program to the three it already has.
“We don’t know how soon that might happen,” she says. “But even with loss of that program, we can leverage the resources that we currently have here at the CNAH, as well as across campus. Also we have some private sector funders who earmark their contributions for American Indians going into the health professions.”
Adequate financial aid is critical to student success, says Sima Manavi, Navajo/Irani, who graduated with an MD in May and is now doing her residency at the California Pacific Medical Center. “The hardest thing in college [for some students] is not being able to focus on school because they have a lot of financial struggles. Having the money to go to school is especially important if you want to go to medical school because it’s not easy.
“I went to college basically for free,” she says, “because I applied for so many scholarships. I focused on scholarships available for Native American students, particularly Navajo students, such as businesses on the reservation and the Navajo tribal government.”
Students need to actively seek and apply for opportunities available to them. “The biggest thing that Native American students who are pursuing higher education is to realize that there are resources out there for every aspect of their career, they just need to look for them,” Manavi says.
Parkers says the CNAH owes its success to the support of UNM Health Sciences Center Chancellor Paul Roth, MD, MS, and to the Health Sciences Center Associate Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs Leslie Morrison, MD. Morrison “has been an unwavering source of support for our student development initiative,” says Parker.
For more information about opportunities in medicine for American Indian students at UNM, contact Micah Clark, 505-272-9873.