Last week I accompanied five American Indian College Fund Scholars to the United Health Foundation’s Annual Diverse Scholars Forum in Washington, D.C. These students have been supported by the United Health Foundation with scholarships to pursue degrees ranging from physical therapy and exercise science to nursing and health occupations. The annual forum brings diverse students together from across the country to hear speakers, discuss topics, share experiences, and motivate them for their future careers in healthcare. The health disparities surrounding American Indian and other minority communities across the country can be overwhelming and discouraging. But thankfully, there are future American Indian leaders who are ready and willing to tackle these issues and are already beginning to improve their communities by thinking about ways to ignite change while juggling final exams, completing lab work, driving hundreds of miles to attend classes, taking care of their own families, and navigating the unsteady and often challenging path of college.
Despite the disheartening facts and issues pertaining to health disparities in American Indian communities, two things proved to be the constant key to transforming health for reservation communities: education and prevention.
Our students had education or prevention ideas in mind to help tackle problems on the reservation. When discussing obesity and diabetes that affect American Indian communities, the students volunteered ideas for community movement programs and free nutrition classes, while also addressing the complex reasons for these health issues, such as the historical role for obesity and diabetes in American Indian communities, including the loss of traditional foods and ways of cooking that were more healthful. Nearly all of the student representatives brought up the problem of how healthy food is expensive and far less accessible than cheaper and more convenient food that are less healthy choices. These are national issues that make my head spin, yet these college students are addressing them and working through possible solutions!
I listened to discussions about mental health issues, suicide rates, and teen pregnancy in Native communities. Again, students are thinking about ways to tackle these challenges step by step. They discussed educating community elders about the reality of these issues and requesting their thought and input. They hope to reach a point where young tribal members seek advice from elders in the traditional way while also discussing difficult and non-traditional issues to create ideas and get communications flowing.
Students discussed how open communication and education in homes and schools in communities can prevent drug use, pregnancy, unprotected sex, and sexually transmitted diseases.
These are tough, complex and important issues to both American Indian and minority communities across the country. Thanks to the United Health Foundation Diverse Scholars Forum, amazing young people from these communities are not only working towards their degrees; they are coming up with solutions for complex health disparities while focusing on positive change for their communities for a bright and healthy future ahead!