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Building Bridges: DICE-Driven Exchange Connects Navajo Technical University Students with Yale School of Medicine

November 15, 2023
by Jasree Peralta

In a unique educational collaboration, students from Navajo Technical University (NTU) recently visited Yale University's School of Medicine, thanks to a partnership curated by YSM's Diversity, Inclusion, and Community Engagement office, commonly known as DICE. The cross-cultural experience offered individuals from both institutions an opportunity to learn from each other and share diverse perspectives on the value of an education in science and medicine.

The collaboration between NTU and DICE underscores YSM’s commitment to fostering diversity and inclusion in the world of medicine. Linda Jackson, director of DICE, elaborated on the visit: "It is important that the students come here physically to visit us at Yale. To see our campus, meet us as people. To learn about our programs and faculty, staff, and students. We welcomed the opportunity to host students from Navajo Technical University because it aligns with our mission of expanding perspectives and building bridges."

Steven Paniagua, PhD, a STEM diversity programs research associate, initiated the collaboration.

“Looking back, I noticed in working with our PATHS students that we hadn’t been reaching a lot of Native American, Hawaiian Native, and Alaskan Native individuals. I felt that we weren’t serving our constituents that we hoped to reach as well as possible. So, I started working with Ms. Jackson to reach out to as many different tribal colleges as possible to see who would be willing to collaborate with us on a new venture that would build on what we are hoping to establish.”

Irene Ane Anyangwe, Ph. D, coordinator of the biology program and chair of the school of science at NTU, accompanied the visiting NTU students. “The [biology] program was started with an intention to prepare medical doctors of the Navajo Nation where there really is a high demand,” said Anyangwe. “There is a lot of underrepresentation of the Navajo community in higher education, PhD, MD/PhD. So, when our colleagues from Yale reached out to me, it felt like an answer to a real big dream to see our students get into a medical program. We have students that are excited to get into MD/PhD and biomedical science programs, so this collaboration is a good start.”

The Visit: A Cultural and Educational Exchange

The visit was designed to offer students from Navajo Technical University both educational and cultural experiences. They had the opportunity to learn about Yale's programs and research initiatives, gaining valuable insights into the field of medicine. The students met with several faculty and staff leaders, who discussed the importance of diversity in health and sciences, medical school student support services, and had a PhD, & MD/PhD information session. The visiting students also met with YSM student affinity group leaders for a private student experience panel.

The NTU guests were invited on Yale campus and lab tours, and on their final evening, went to dinner at the Yale Native American Cultural Center. NTU guests shared their own stories and experiences.

“I have an aspiration to work in oncology. Its prevalent in my family, I’m battling it now, my dad is now as well,” said Essie Yazzie Ealy, a junior in the NTU biology program. “In my community where I live, because of the uranium mines that are there, its growing rapid. My place is to help find a cure and be instrumental in some way, shape, or form in that field.”

“I’ve just been so inspired. Being in the PATHS program I’ve already received so much inspiration that I can be here,” said Layla James, an NTU biology junior. “I want to be a bridge that helps the Navajo people to advance in healthcare. The youth is not inspired, and I think it would be so much better to see someone they can relate to, someone that grew up the way they did without electricity and without running water to say, ‘I made it’. That’s what I want to bring back, inspiration, and a bridge to advance everything.”

”It was shocking to me. I didn’t think I would actually be here on a visit,” said Francheska Noble, NTU biology junior. "After speaking to Dr. Karina Gonzalez, she made it easy to see how I could enter a PhD program and be guided to the different types of programs Yale provides. They seem like they care here and want students to succeed. Just to have the research experience and education would be great for me. We want to bring students in engineering and STEM majors to Navajo Nation. Growing up on the reservation was hard because you would have to travel maybe two hours away for a specific hospital to get treatment. People are in need, and building hospitals closer would be easier for the people.”

“We emphasize our traditions as its still really important. Our traditional uses of herbs, we still use them, and it would be nice to provide even more of the science to back it up,” said Jasmine Churley, a biology graduate. “I’m a first-generation graduate. Even to say I have a BA is major, so to be looking into PhD programs, it’s just not something that’s thought of a lot on the reservation. I didn’t have much information when it came to looking into college, and it’s the same for graduate school as well. I want to show others that they can do it, and I want to be able to be a resource for them as well.”

“I want to show the younger generations, that are most likely first generations like most of us here, that you can go beyond the reservation, and that there is funding out there available to us,” said Tionna Tapaha, a biology graduate. “We don’t have to just stick to old ways, we can break barriers for others and especially ourselves. I really would like to be able to incorporate my own research and medical background to come back and build a practice of my own on the reservation. To be able to have our own office in dermatology, especially one that can specialize in skin cancer which is common in the Navajo Nation, would be pretty great. And, to also create my own skincare line targeted towards native communities with our skin concerns from uranium tailings [1] and make it affordable, cost effective, and work for them. To be a part of the PATHS program and now physically visiting Yale, it’s starting to feel like home to me, and as my top choice for school. The student leaders really enlightened me to think that I could have a place here.”

[1] Uranium mill tailings are primarily the sandy process waste material from a conventional uranium mill. This ore residue contains the radioactive decay products from the uranium chains (mainly the U-238 chain) and heavy metals.

Submitted by Jasree Peralta on November 15, 2023