SPOKANE — Statistically, the Washington State University Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine enrolls higher numbers of American Indian and Alaska Native students compared to other medical schools nationwide.
That’s not saying much, Leila Harrison admitted.
Harrison, the College of Medicine’s senior associate dean for admissions and student affairs, pointed to how WSU’s number of enrolled American Indian and Alaska Native students has ranged as high as approximately 5% of the total student population. By comparison, the annual nationwide rate in that span has hovered around 0.7%, according to Association of American Medical Colleges data.
“When you say that, you would think that it’s a big number,” Harrison said. “It’s still a small number, and that needs to change.”
The College of Medicine is hoping to do so by expanding a program that offers conditional acceptance into WSU’s medical school to students from federally recognized tribes.
Since 2020, WSU has partnered with the Oregon Health and Science University School of Medicine in Portland and the University of California, Davis School of Medicine to offer the Wy’east Post-Baccalaureate Pathway.
As part of the program, the College of Medicine has granted conditional acceptance to up to four students per year who first attend a 10-month program at OHSU in Portland.
Starting in 2024, WSU will host its own pathway program on the Spokane campus thanks to a five-year, $3.4 million federal grant that will allow for more enrollees and — for WSU — a more direct connection with program participants.
“The amazing part of that is we get to have our own faculty train them. We get to immerse them into our own learning environment and learning community,” said Harrison, who has spearheaded WSU’s program pathway efforts. “For them, they get to know us better as an administration and our current student body. They get to become more familiar with the resources that are available to our medical students.”
Before getting involved in Wy’east, the WSU College of Medicine — founded in 2015 — was not established long enough to create its own pathway program.
Harrison said OHSU reached out around 2018 to see if WSU was interested in Wy’east, thereby giving participating students options to attend medical school either at WSU Spokane, OHSU or UC Davis in Sacramento. WSU’s first Wy’east cohort was picked in 2020.
The 10-month program in Portland prepares participants for the first year of medical school with anatomy and epidemiology coursework, clinical shadowing, research and Medical College Admission Test preparation.
Moving to Portland for 10 months’ of classes before moving again to Spokane was a barrier for many prospective applicants, however. Lexie Packham, who is entering her second year at the College of Medicine, had to move from Utah to Portland for Wy’east before finally landing in Spokane to attend WSU.
“That was a bit inconvenient for my husband who had to be switching jobs a lot,” said Packham, a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. “It would’ve been nice to do Wy’east at the school that I was going to attend afterwards.”
A new $3.4 million grant, funded over five years from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, will allow WSU, OHSU and UC Davis to each operate their own pathway programs for Native students.
WSU’s program, which will come online in fall 2024, will have a new name reflective of local tribes, Harrison said. WSU also plans to enroll more students and will attempt to make it a certificate or degree program.
“These are not necessarily going to be courses that are already existing,” she said. “Part of this is building, working with our current faculty to build coursework that is applicable to this level of student that is sort of pre-preparation for the medical curriculum.”
Wy’east students, as well as those participating in WSU’s future program, must be enrolled members of federally recognized tribes, regardless of race or ethnicity, and must have a bachelor’s degree. State law prohibits WSU from considering race or ethnicity for admissions.
Harrison said the grant also allows WSU to hire additional program staff.
“It’s really kind of bringing them into that College of Medicine family that we have and the overall culture that we have,” she said. “They already become part of us, so that way, when they matriculate into the medical school, they are already comfortable. They already have that knowledge and trust rather than transitioning and building it brand new.”
Packham said Wy’east gave her a pathway to pursue her dream after her initial applications into medical school were rejected.
“It’s really important that WSU has a program like Wy’east to get Native people involved in medicine because I know a lot of Native people who are interested in working in health care,” she said. “It’s hard because they don’t ever see a Native doctor.”
Packham had applied to medical schools after studying microbiology at Brigham Young University. While she wasn’t accepted, two of the schools — WSU and OHSU — referred her to the Wy’east program.
As a result, Packham said her first year at WSU felt like review after learning much of the material in Wy’east, which — due to the conditional acceptance — provided a “low-stakes environment” for her to learn.
“That really helped me have a mindset of just trying my best and not being a perfectionist about things,” she said, “because the point of school, the point of medical school, is to keep failing until you really understand the coursework and the medical skills. That shift with Wy’east really helped.”