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Pre-med program for rural and Alaska Native health students restarts after funding gap and receives grants

Pre-med program for rural and Alaska Native health students restarts after funding gap and receives grants
Pre-med program for rural and Alaska Native health students restarts after funding gap and receives grants

Of all the courses offered by the Della Keats Pre-Graduate Program, the three high school students in the lobby of the University of Alaska Anchorage were most impressed by the cadaver lab in their anatomy and physiology course. It’s not the kind of opportunity that students from rural Alaska typically get, and that’s the point.

Bristol Albrant, a 16-year-old from Ketchikan, said the experience was indescribable. “This is definitely not normal. People just don’t have the opportunity to have donors like this,” she said.

For Tanya Nelson of Napakiak, it was the first time she had seen a dead body. “It was probably the first time for us,” she said with a smile.

Albrant wants to study medicine, Nelson is interested in a career as a nurse and Cruz Kvaznikoff, an 18-year-old from Nanwalek, said his interest in becoming a paramedic was sparked by his father, who works in the medical field.

All three are living in Anchorage for a month as part of a program designed to promote academic success for indigenous or otherwise underrepresented students from rural Alaska who are interested in pursuing careers in the health field. The program is named after Della Keats, a traditional Inupiaq healer from the Noatak region.

The Della Keats program was dormant for six years due to lack of funding, but is now being reinstated for the first time since 2018. Halfway through the program’s life, organizers learned that the initiative had received a $1.3 million grant from the Indian Health Service that would keep the program running for at least another five years.

The program aims to close a gap in health equity. Data shows that Alaska Native and American Indians are underrepresented in health professions nationally and in Alaska. The program focuses on students considering careers in research, medicine or health-related professions so that Alaskans benefit from a more diverse health care workforce. Della Keats’ relaunch comes at a time when the state is grappling with a significant nursing shortage in the wake of the pandemic.

Gloria Burnett, the director of the Alaska Center for Rural Health and Health Workforce at UAA, said several previous grant applications were unsuccessful, so this news is a relief. She said it eases the burden of resolving financial issues so administrators can focus on building the program.

“A lot of these students don’t have access to these opportunities in their home communities, so it’s definitely a culture shock when you leave your small home community and move to a bigger place like the university,” Burnett said. “And we’re trying to make that place and space a more comfortable place for them while they’re still in high school so it’s easier for them after they graduate.”

Burnett said the new funding will mean Della Keats can expand to include new components, including targeting students in grades K through eight and creating an Alaska Native learning community for students in the University of Washington’s federal medical education program, named after the initials of the participating states of Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho. The program has staff and classes on the UAA campus.

“Getting kids interested is one thing, and I think we do that really well in the state of Alaska, but it’s not necessarily a bridge to higher education,” she said. She said Della Keats bridges that gap by showing students what apprenticeship programs look like, what the requirements are, and getting them familiar with paperwork and financial aid. It also shows them how to live independently. Students live in dorms and receive a stipend that they must budget for things like daily lunches and weekend activities.

Students like Albrant, Nelson and Kvaznikoff experience college-like courses and live independently in the dorm with the support of mentors who have gone through the program and are now studying medicine.

Chanmi Joo, a graduate of the program who just completed her first year of medical school at the University of Washington, has participated in Della Keats twice. This is her fourth year as a mentor.

“The cadaver lab was also my favorite. And it not only strengthened my desire to study medicine, but also made me realize that I can make a difference. Not only for patients, but also for the future generation,” she said.

Joo said the program paved her path to becoming a surgeon by helping her decide which areas of the medical profession were right for her, and she wants to contribute to the next generation of health professionals.

Nelson, who is interested in returning to Western Alaska to start a nursing career in the big city of Bethel, said the program also helped her decide which areas of medicine weren’t right for her. “I’m not interested in research,” she said. “I want to see patients.”

“Yes, practical,” added Kvaznikoff.

Albrant agreed: “I don’t like being in the lab. I like figuring out a problem and then solving it.”

After medical school, she also wants to return to Alaska. “I think I might want to move for college,” she said. “But then I’ll definitely come back to Ketchikan so I can try to give back as much as I can.”

Originally published by Alaska Beaconan independent, nonpartisan news organization covering Alaska state government.

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