When Adela Lente first began attending public school off the American Indian reservation she grew up on, it was an eye-opening experience. “The students from the reservation were known for having pretty handwriting, but we were behind in reading, math, and English. It was hard catching up,” she said.
Academics were important to Lente because she dreamed of being a physician and helping out in medically underserved areas like the one she grew up in. Yet even though she excelled in school, both high school and college counselors and even her own family told her she had little chance of getting into medical school. Education was not valued on the reservation. Her father, who got his GED and a technical certificate after serving in Vietnam, had gone the farthest.
Lente first tried to study computer aided drafting at a community college, but ultimately ended up in pharmacy school at the University of New Mexico. While going through the program, medical school was still in the back of her head. She expressed her desire to the college’s dean, and he put her in touch with a medical school recruiter who wrote down exactly what she needed to do to get admitted. She began volunteering at health clinics, enrolled in an MCAT prep course, and started keeping up with medical-related current events. “She told me to apply early decision to UNM, and I got in. It was a hard journey because I didn’t know how to navigate the system,” Lente said.
Today, Dr. Lente is one of only a handful of board-certified, female, Native American surgeons practicing in the country and she is chair of surgery at the Burrell College of Osteopathic Medicine. She previously worked at Tuba City Regional on the Navajo reservation in Arizona, and she has been mentoring younger students as long as she’s been in practice. This year she took it a step further and launched the Native American Explorers program, a branch off of the Medical Explorers program Dr. Richard Selinfreund started for high school students interested in healthcare careers.
Dr. Lente reached out to Native American students at Las Cruces High School and nine jumped on board with her mentoring program. The program is still new, but so far the students have toured the medical school and been paired with a mentor. They were also invited to a cultural night hosted by the college and they attended a med-evac helicopter demonstration where they were able to speak with air paramedics.
While only a couple of the students in the program are interested in healthcare careers, Dr. Lente is more concerned with getting them interested in higher education in general. One boy, who was planning to follow in the footsteps of many of his family members and become a welder, discovered an interest in becoming a pilot at the helicopter event.
“We’re calling this program Native American Explorers instead of Medical Explorers because no matter what they are interested in, we will give them a mentor and help them. The medical students have all kinds of undergraduate degrees, so they can talk to them about all the options. Many of these young kids just don’t know what’s out there until someone tells them and encourages them,” Lente said.
Sharon Gloshay grew up on a reservation in Arizona and attended an Indian boarding school in Oklahoma. She married, had children, and worked for the government for over 25 years before turning to higher education. She will soon graduate from NMSU with a master’s degree in anthropology and culture resource management.
“I felt like I’d reached a plateau in my career,” she explained. “I was doing the job of a much higher pay grade, but couldn’t be promoted because of my lack of education. Growing up, we heard about higher education, but there weren’t really any programs like Dr. Lente’s to guide us. That’s why when opportunities like this come up, I want my daughter to use them. Don’t be like me and choose the more difficult path. Even though I eventually made it back, I tell my kids, don’t get married and have kids right away. There’s time for that later. Get your education first.”
One of Gloshay’s daughters is now a staff sergeant in the military. The other, Sara Kinney, is participating in the Explorers program with dreams of becoming a surgeon. Her medical school mentor has been helping her decide what courses to take and letting her know what to expect in undergrad and medical school. Yet even today, Kinney said there are still barriers to Native American students pursuing higher education. She’s come up against stereotypes like people assuming the government will pay for her college or that she’s of a “lower class” than other students.
“When I lived on the reservation, we had community college, but that’s as far as people would go and not many even took advantage of that,” Kinney said. “It feels like they don’t have hope that we can make it into college, when we really can make it into college. Instead of drugs and alcohol, I hope that they will start pushing students into higher education and that can be their motivation in life.”
Gem Wilson, a senior at NMSU, also hopes that more Native Americans will pursue higher education. She found out about Dr. Lente’s program through BCOM’s MCAT prep course. She said she only recently realized she could pursue a career in medicine and she is now hoping to become a plastic surgeon. Her mother, Marlene Attakai, said she wishes more young Native Americans would take advantage of programs like the Explorers, but she has seen improvements in educational opportunities.
“I see now that more American Indians are going to college. My parents were sent to one of the Indian boarding schools to assimilate into American society and they were punished if they spoke their language. Now, I see that it’s not like that so much anymore. We can be proud of our culture and still reach our goals. I’m so happy and proud because I know that Gem is going to complete what she’s aiming to do, which is to become a medical doctor,” Attakai explained.
While Dr. Lente is excited that these young girls want to follow in her footsteps, she reiterated that the Native American Explorers program is about much more than getting students to attend medical school. She said, “I’m hoping that we can get all the local high schools on board and extend this mentorship opportunity to all the American Indian students in the area. We want to get them interested in some type of higher education even if it’s earning a certificate, going to technical school, or attending community college. You can kill yourself at a minimum wage job and never have the basics covered. A good education leads to medical benefits, housing, a good job, and a good life. Education means more options than the generation that came before you, and that’s what will help these communities out the most.”