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UCSD recruits Native American med students to improve health equity among indigenous peoples

California took a major step this fall in recognizing and funding education to support Native American health care.

The state budget granted UC San Diego School of Medicine $2.6 million for health equity programs. The money will be used to recruit more Native American student doctors and to provide resources to better serve indigenous peoples across the county.

Currently, only 1% of the UCSD medical school population is Native American or Alaska Native. Eight of those students were honored early this month in the University’s first-ever Blessing and Blanket ceremony.

Blanket ceremonies are a pan-Indigenous practice that celebrates individuals going through life-changing events. The current Native American second-year medical students were recognized and honored as they transitioned to the position of student-doctor.

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UC-San Diego School of Medicine student doctors were honored in blessing and blanket ceremony in La Jolla. Nov. 10, 2021

Paul Michael Acosta II is a member of the Arawak peoples who originated in South America and the Caribbean. He is here from Ocilla, Georgia, with plans to specialize in transplant medicine. His Native American grandmother, who he calls Nana has been a significant influence in cultivating his heritage.

Acosta proudly does outreach to his community.

“If you are treated by someone who understands your cultural values and respects them,” he said..“And you’re able to mesh those into high-quality medical healthcare you get the best possible outcomes for your patients.”

California is home to the largest American Indian and Alaskan Native population, with San Diego County having the highest number of Indian reservations in the country.

Topknot Photography
Student doctor Paul Michael Acosta II in an undated photo with his mother and his Nana two important influences in his Native American upbringing.

Bri Irons, also a second-year student doctor, said she was mentored by her grandfather who is from the Chickasaw Nation. Irons told KPBS News she has been described as ‘white passing’, a negative term some use to refer to Native Americans with light-colored skin.

She’s strongly against racist labels.

“We need to make changes in our education system more proactively,” she said. “Working against discrimination so the next generation doesn’t encounter those same stereotypes.”

Bri Irons
Student doctor Bri Irons with her Native American grandfather of the Chickasaw Nation in an undated photo.

“UC San Diego was built on the territory of the Kumeyaay Nation,” said Dr. Michelle Daniel, professor of clinical emergency medicine and vice dean for medical education at UC San Diego School of Medicine. “As a land-grant institution, we have an obligation to promote greater inclusion of American Indian students in medicine, and support the health care of our local tribes.”

Even before the state’s current budget funding, UC San Diego students and faculty were already hard at work recruiting Native American students and developing courses on Native American health care.

“Thanks to these efforts, we have been accepting the most Native American students across all UC medical schools," Daniel said. "This made us competitive and poised to receive these funds."