Wy’East enhances pathway to medical school for American Indian and Alaska Native students

Sept. 18, 2018

Jake Smith knew that the Wy'East Post-Baccalaureate Pathway was for him as soon as he learned about it. The new pathway, created by the Northwest Native American Center of Excellence at OHSU, prepares American Indian and Alaska Native students to excel as medical students and physicians.

Smith is a member of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla, located in northeastern Oregon and southeastern Washington, but grew up in an urban setting far away from his ancestral homelands and culture.

He has wanted to be a doctor since he was a child and suffered from a multitude of illnesses yet wasn't accepted to the medical schools he wanted to attend during his first application cycle. The Wy'East pathway allows him to re-connect with his culture and build community with other students while gaining academic enhancements to support his goal of becoming a physician.

"I want to give back and heal others, just as I had the good fortune to be healed," he said. "I want to become a physician who builds trusting relationships with patients, based not only on diligence, but honesty and empathy."

Wy'East passing the yarn

The OHSU Northwest Native American Center of Excellence launched last year to comprehensively and sustainably address the health care needs of all people by increasing Native American voice in the health professions. The center's efforts include building a pathway starting in middle school for students interested in the health professions and a focus on recruitment, training and retention of Native students, trainees and faculty.

The center is a collaboration between OHSU, the Northwest Portland Area Indian Health Board and Portland State University. It's funded through a five-year grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the OHSU School of Medicine with the support of the 43 federally recognized tribes in the Pacific Northwest.

Wy'East pathway includes conditional acceptance to OHSU School of Medicine

One of several of the center's initiatives, the Wy'East pathway has two strands. The Academic Enhancement Pathway is for students who applied but were not accepted into medical school due to barriers such as a qualifying MCAT score. The Career Change Pathway is for students who have a bachelor's degree but have not completed premedical coursework.

Students admitted into the Academic Enhancement Pathway earn conditional acceptance to the OHSU School of Medicine M.D. program when they successfully complete all pathway benchmarks. At the end of their academic year, Career Change students can apply to the Academic Enhancement Pathway, or apply straight to medical schools.

"The Wy'East pathway is about identifying and inviting American Indian students who are on the cusp," said Erik Brodt, M.D., an assistant professor of family medicine, OHSU School of Medicine, and director of the center of excellence. "Students coming from our tribal communities are exceedingly likely to return there to help solve health inequities and to serve as role models for the next generation of physicians. We just need to get them in the door and support their success."

The pathway, which is not formally called a program because it does not award an academic degree, includes a curriculum varied by strand. A total of up to 10 students are admitted each year.

The Academic Enhancement Pathway, a one-year rigorous commitment, includes MCAT preparation and curriculum and coursework in foundations of biomedical science, population health and health disparities, and academic skills and wellness, as well as clinical observation, community-based research experience and cultural activities.

The Career Change Pathway, a two-year commitment, includes a year of pre-medical coursework at Portland State University before either applying directly to medical school or pursuing the Wy'East Academic Enhancement Pathway.

American Indian and Alaska Native students are eligible if they have completed an undergraduate degree at an accredited, four-year college or university and have a 2.8 GPA or higher. For the Academic Enhancement Pathway, students must have completed premedical school coursework and earned an MCAT score of 491 or greater. Students who enter the Career Change Pathway have yet to complete their premedical school coursework.

Students who are admitted have no tuition or enrollment fee for the pathway; they receive a monthly stipend and are responsible for their living expenses.

Inaugural class completed orientation in September

Jake SmithJake Smith joined nine other students at the Wy'East orientation in September as the inaugural class. On the last day, they gathered in a light-filled Robertson Life Sciences Building classroom overlooking the Tilikum Crossing (a Chinook word for "people") to construct vision boards – gluing magazine and other images to cardboard to describe who they are and where they're headed.

Smith, who grew up in Hillsboro and got his bachelor's degree in biochemistry and molecular biology at Linfield College, included on his vision board his goal to graduate from the Wy'East pathway and from medical school and also to take on another challenge – confronting his fear of heights by getting a helicopter license.

Candice Jimenez, a member of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs in Central Oregon, included images representing her two children as well as an image of a man juggling bowling balls to represent the bigger load her husband will take on at home so that she can focus on her studies.

Jimenez, who is in the Career Change Pathway, was raised by her maternal grandmother on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation. Accompanying her grandma on doctor's visits for her rheumatoid arthritis, she remembers wondering how her grandma's experience and health could have been better if the providers understood and could incorporate her cultural context.

"I had a vision for what a culturally agile healer could look like," Jimenez said.

Celebrating a collective strength

Jimenez received her bachelor's degree in biology from Concordia University and went to work as an electronic health record tutor and scribe. She later earned her master's degree in Public Health from the OHSU-PSU School of Public Health and became a research coordinator for the Northwest Portland Area Indian Health Board where she learned about the Wy'East pathway.

"I feel like we all bring that competitive edge but, through the orientation week, I've also realized our collective strength," she said. "We represent the communities we want to serve."

The Wy'East orientation, led by Shoshana Zeisman-Pereyo, Ed.D., ended the orientation by forming a circle with the students on the RLSB veranda overlooking the river. They passed a ball of red yarn from one to another and shared what they had learned this week.

Rosa Frutos, project coordinator for the center of excellence, summed up the sense of hope and anticipation tangible in the group.

"I don't even have the words to describe how inspiring you all are," Frutos said. "I am beyond excited that you are all here, and I can't wait to see what you will all do."

Wy'east Faculty and Program Staff

  • Dr. Allison Empey, Northwest Native American Center of Excellence Deputy Director
  • Dr. Cynthia Morris, Wy'east Post-Baccalaureate Pathway Director
  • Dr. Peter Mayinger, Foundational Sciences Thread Director
  • Dr. Shoshana Zeisman-Pereyo, Academic Skills & Wellness Thread Director
  • Dr. Katharine Zuckerman, Population Health Thread Director
  • Rosa Frutos, Program Coordinator

Wy'East group photo

Photos by Jordan Sleeth | OHSU. From top:

Faculty and students wrapped up orientation for the inaugural class of the Wy'East Post-Baccalaureate Pathway Sept. 14 on the Robertson Life Sciences Building veranda by passing a ball of yarn and sharing what they had learned and their excitement for their future.

Jake Smith, a member of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla, and Candice Jimenez, a member of the Confederate Tribes of Warm Springs, applied to the Wy'East pathway in pursuit of their plans to give back to their Oregon tribal communities as what Jimenez calls, "culturally agile healers."

Faculty and the first 10 students in the Wy'East Post-Baccalaureate Pathway celebrated the end of orientation Sept. 14. The pathway, an initiative of the Northwest Native American Center of Excellence at OHSU, prepares American Indian and Alaska Native students to excel as medical students and physicians.