Native American students learned about diabetes while also gaining inspiration to pursue higher education during a summer program at Western University of Health Sciences.

The students are part of joint Pitzer College/WesternU Native American Summer Pipeline to College program, where they spend two weeks on the Pitzer campus building the necessary academic skills for college. Pitzer provides the dorm space and meals. The program is also supported by San Manuel, Pechanga and an Edison financial grant.

The WesternU portion of their summer curriculum emphasized diabetes education and prevention, led by the Western Diabetes Institute. WesternU’s WDI is a patient-centered integrated practice unit dedicated to diabetes and its adverse effects, wherein assessments and plans of care are developed using a team approach.

“The idea is to get exposed to different aspects of the clinic, especially diabetes and diabetes care, which is so prevalent in the Native American community,” said Nishita Patel, MD, FACP, Assistant Professor of Internal Medicine in the Division of Infectious Disease. “One factor is lack of access to health care and lack of trust in outside clinics. But if we bring their children here and get them involved in the health care setting, we’re making a bridge. We’re showing how complicated it is to take care of diabetes. They should feel comfortable knowing there is a source they can come to in the future if they need to. If we can work in collaboration to prevent diabetes in the future, that would be great.”

The program ended with graduation on Aug. 11, and the students’ families played a large part in the celebration.

“We wanted this to be family affair, so we’re encouraging families to be part of this journey with the kids,” said Scott Scoggins, WesternU community outreach coordinator and director of the Native American Summer Pipeline to College program at Pitzer. “Now that your children have gone through these two weeks learning about different career pathways in the medical field and the media industry, these are now the concrete steps you can take to keep your kids on these types of tracks.

“We know this is only two weeks that we have for them, but in those two weeks a lot of people have come together to help provide those ‘A ha’ moments for the kids that are going to help inspire them to get on this health career track,” he added.

The lessons learned this summer will be reinforced by American Indian Health Career Ladder activities during the school year, said Elizabeth Rega, PhD, WesternU assistant vice provost for academic development.

“It’s not just a two-week experience, it’s the beginning of the rest of their educational experience,” she said. “They know they have this network of support.”

“The idea is to get students on WesternU’s campus more, so they can really see themselves here,” Scoggins said. “Everyone here has been phenomenal with the students. It’s those personal relationships that are going to get the kids here.”

The motto for the program is “Tradition for life, education for the future.”

“We know for our kids to be strong in the academic world, they need to be strong culturally as well. We bring in elders and tribal members and provide community and cultural support so they can get stronger in themselves,” Scoggins said. “If we could support the students equally like that, we’re bound to have stronger doctors, and we could see more of our Native American youth going into those pathways.”

The WesternU teachers are great, said pipeline participant Alexander Garcia Sanchez.

“They teach us, and with that little spark they give us, we can turn it into a flame,” he said. “We can help in our communities. It starts with education. We could do it if we put our minds to it.”