University of Arizona College of Medicine announces new scholarship for Navajo students

The University of Arizona -Phoenix partnered with the Navajo Nation to establish scholarship funds for Navajo medical students. (Sierra LaDuke/DD)

The University of Arizona colleges of medicine in Tucson and downtown Phoenix announced last week a six-year partnership with the Navajo Nation to establish scholarship funds for Navajo medical students.

The scholarship, named the Navajo Nation Future Physicians’ Scholarship Fund, was established to encourage more Navajo students to pursue careers in the medical field by providing financial assistance, Tara Cunningham, associate dean of University of Arizona College of Medicine — Phoenix, said.

Cunningham said the medical field sees 41,000 applicants yearly, including 200 Native Americans, less than half of whom are Navajo.

“They see finance as a barrier, so we are going to take that off the table,” Cunningham said.

University of Arizona initiated the process of forming the scholarship after Karen Francis-Begay, the university’s vice president of tribal relations, noticed the Navajo Nation had a similar partnership with the University of New Mexico School of Law, Cunningham said.

The scholarship funds will be derived from the Navajo Department of Diné Education and University of Arizona, with the university matching the funds the Navajo Nation provides.

Scholarship recipients will be required to serve the Navajo people for five years upon completion of their post-M.D. medical residency. The Navajo Nation included this requirement to ensure some sort of repayment for the funds it contributed, Cunningham said.

“They are investing in you, and the way that you can repay them is serving the community,” she said.

The fund will support up to seven scholars each year. The scholarship is available for current UA medical students along with students accepted into the Pre-Medical Admissions Pathway program in Tucson or the Pathway Scholars program in Phoenix. Those eligible must be registered members of the Navajo Nation.

Bonnie DeWeaver, head of scholarships at Phoenix Indian Center, said scholarships are helpful not only for school but for students’ futures as well.

“If they’ve defaulted on loans it’s very negative on job prospects,” DeWeaver said. “Any additional resources are really wonderful.”

Jaymus Lee, 28, is the only Navajo student at the University of Arizona medical campus in Phoenix.

Lee said the underrepresentation of Navajo in the medical field stems from a lack of accessibility in the process. He said Native Americans who pursue degrees are mostly on their own.

“For the Navajo population, and Native Americans in general, we’re not very well represented when it comes to health education and things like that … and things I’ve noticed myself are the lack of support and knowledge,” Lee said. “They kind of have to find this support and the trail to their path by themselves.”

Lee said the residency requirement of the scholarship may be lengthy, but he understands the need for it.

“I think that there’s a need across the board when it comes to Native American communities in general,” Lee said. “I just know in general that healthcare in native country is far below the rest of the country, so I think having native physicians go back into their community is really important.”

Lee said he is proud of UA for seeing the need for more diversity and for taking steps to open doors for the Native American community.

Lee said the need for accessibility is still large, but the scholarship is a step in the right direction.

“I think that they have done a really good job,” Lee said. “Hopefully we get more students applying with that scholarship.”

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