Federal funding allows WSU College of Medicine to increase number of Native students

Federal funding has allowed the Wy'east pathway program to expand at WSU.
Wy'east 2021
Leila Harrison
Students Alexandra Packham and Mary Brewer pose with Leila Harrison at a Blanketing Ceremony to celebrate completion of the Wy'east program.

PULLMAN, Wash. — New federal funding is allowing Washington State University to expand resources to support Native learners aspiring to be physicians.

The Wy’east Post-Baccalaureate Pathway program is a 10-month learning experience aimed at helping American Indian and Alaska Native (AIAN) learners prepare for medical school. It’s offered at the Washington State University (WSU) College of Medicine, UC Davis School of Medicine, and Oregon Health & Science University School of Medicine.  

Wy’east was originally shared by the three schools, and program admittance was sparse; WSU only selected four scholars annually. According to WSU’s director of communications and marketing, Christina Verheul, the new funding is a “huge step” in changing this limitation. 

“This federal funding came to the group as a whole, and some of [that] money will allow WSU to have the program independently,” Verheul explained. “The way it was set up, only four individuals were able to receive admittance to WSU. Now, we can welcome more people from underserved populations, so that they can go and effect change in their communities.”  

Her sentiments are echoed by Leila Harrison, Senior Associate Dean for Admissions and Student Affairs.  According to Harrison, there is a huge need to increase the number of Native physicians in Washington.  

“There’s about a 1.2% average of those enrolled in medical school that identify themselves as American Indian or Alaskan native, so obviously we know there’s a significant need,” she said. “We also know that often they come from communities that don’t have mentors [or] physicians for them to look up to. “ 

Alexandra Packham, a rising second year medical student who graduated from the Wy’east program, said mentorship is one of the most impactful takeaways of the pathway program.  

The Wy’east program has been a huge blessing in my life. I had never met a Native doctor before, and it meant the world to learn from and be mentored by Native doctors in the Wy’east program,” she said. “I also had the pleasure of learning from my classmates, who will be wonderful physicians and healthcare professionals.” 

According to Harrison, along with the opportunity for extra support from mentors, more funding will ensure the role of a part-time faculty member to oversee the Wy’east program at WSU.  

“To be able to supplement somebody ‘s salary to be able to take on this work is a really important part of [the funding],” Harrison said. “We all have so much on our plates. We need to make sure we identify somebody who is going to be very effective in taking charge.” 

For Packham, in addition to feeling “fully prepared” for her time in medicine school by the Wy’east program, the experience helped to refocus her love of the field.  

I came away from the program with a renewed passion for medicine, [and] an increased understanding of how Native people belong in medicine,” she said. “Recently, I just finished my first year of medical school and feel that the Wy’east program [played] a huge part in helping me succeed this year. My mentors from Wy’east check in on me and support me even though I have finished the program.” 

Because of Wy’east, Packham now spends her own time mentoring young Native people and encouraging them to a career in medicine if it’s their passion.  

WSU will operate its pathway independently starting 2024.