Inland Journal, March 14, 2019: Training Native American Health Professionals

Mar 14, 2019

Naomi Bender stands next to the huge white board outside her office that lists her plans for attracting and supporting Native American health sciences students.
Credit Doug Nadvornick/SPR

Thursday on the Inland Journal podcast, Native Americans are deeply underrepresented among the health sciences workforce in the United States. Washington State University is working on a plan to recruit more Native students to health-related careers. We’ll talk with Dr. Naomi Bender, the university’s director of Native American Health Sciences about the challenges involved in that and about some of her strategies.

Naomi Bender: “Native American students have a significantly different historical context and background than other underrepresented students in the United States. When we look at the history of Native Americans in the United States, a lot of the concerns in terms of education and health disparities exist now due to historical trauma and a continuous burdening of issues and concerns over education and the lack of support for education for students on their reservations or in rural or underserved areas. I’ve worked with students that have come from elementary, junior and high schools, where they were never taught science, where they lacked math instructors. So when we look at the health sciences, it’s important to have pathway programs that help stimulate and ignite interest in students who don’t come from an education system that should be offering them what other students receive. Part of a pathway program would offer an enrichment and academic program for students in the summer or in addition to their academic year. When we introduce those sciences, even at a really young age, we help ignite that interest and hopefully propel them into the interest of becoming health care providers.”

Doug: “Naive question: why are they not offered the math and science courses that other students in other districts are getting?”

Naomi Bender: “There’s a few reasons. Lack of funding can be an issue. Also, it’s hard to keep teachers in some of those rural and underserved areas. To provide health and science curriculum in those areas can be difficult. You might get an agriculture teacher, but you may not be able to find a biology teacher. Now some reservations, some rural and underserved areas are able to find that, others are not. For those that do, it’s typically one science teacher that may cover two or three subjects, but it may be something that students receive for only one or two years and it’s not something that’s a continuous curriculum throughout their time in K-through-12 systems. I don’t always like to use the word ‘watered down’, but it tends to be a watered-down system. They’re not offered the same educational pathways as other students. I don’t mean to speak about that generally, however we often see that in rural and underserved areas and poverty-stricken areas among our Native populations.”

Doug: “So what’s the best way to catch those students up?”

Naomi Bender: “Part of my work here is to help ignite that kind of piece, so visiting schools at a really young age and introducing them to the health sciences, whether that’s through scientific exploration and educators that come in and help their instructors teach students, even in diverse ways, how to bring and bridge math and science together in fun ways for youth. Another way is to provide enrichment camps, such as our Na-Ha-Shnee camp, where we bring students in that are junior high or high school to explore the health sciences and also get them inside simulation labs, help them explore research, have them see their potential. Without that piece where it sparks their curiosity, it gets really difficult to show them anything else.”

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