Health STAR Program prepares medical professionals for Rez

Photo by Helen Lau Running/Observer
Hilda Ladner, left, Director of NAU’s Multicultural Student Center, Lucy Estrella, Health Star Program peer adviser and Aliticia Tijerina, Health STAR Program coordinator, work to ensure a smooth transition for minority students entering health career programs at NAU.

Photo by Helen Lau Running/Observer Hilda Ladner, left, Director of NAU’s Multicultural Student Center, Lucy Estrella, Health Star Program peer adviser and Aliticia Tijerina, Health STAR Program coordinator, work to ensure a smooth transition for minority students entering health career programs at NAU.

FLAGSTAFF -- The Health STAR Program (Successful Transition Academic Readiness) is a Northern Arizona University program designed to assist ethnic minority high school graduates in the entrance of college health career programs.

Not only does the program allow students to meet other young people interested in health careers, it introduces young people to the NAU campus and the lifestyle they will face after leaving home for the first time. Additionally, the program offers six credit hours and participation in college-level seminars in the health field.

The cut-off for this summer's participants is June 1. By that time, students interested in participation in the Health STAR program must have been accepted to NAU and indicated an interest in a health major, Aliticia Tijerina, program coordinator, said in an interview on March 20. Students must also have applied to the STAR program, which runs from June 3 to July 3. Finally, students must demonstrate academic need by filling out financial aid paperwork.

"The program is a bridge for retention," Tijerina said. "Students learn about college and meet professors. They enter this program straight out of high school, and our students have told me what they like best about it is meeting other students. They have already formed a community."

For many of her Native American students, this is the first time they have lived off the reservation Tijerina said. The program gives them the opportunity to learn where the bookstore is, and each is assigned a peer advisor from the Multicultural Center who assists in academic support and advisement. This advisor is on hand to help STAR students through the enrollment process in the fall.

The program isn't for everyone.

"It is an intensive, all-day class for five weeks," Tijerina said.

Cancer and diabetes is on the upswing in reservation communities, and research has shown that part of the problem is no access to early medical treatment.

"This partnership is geared toward first response detection at the early stages of a disease," Tijerina said. "Our research programs are geared toward first response."

Students will work with the Native American Cancer Research Partnership (NACRP), sponsored by the national Cancer Institute's Minority Institute/Cancer Center Program. The program is administered jointly by NAU and the Arizona Cancer Center at the University of Arizona. Research projects focus on the relationship of environmental toxins, particularly uranium.

Participation in these seminars will provide STAR students an opportunity to learn in a teaching laboratory or to conduct field research. Students will be involved in such field research during a fieldtrip to the reservation where they will assist in collecting water and testing same for contaminants and uranium factors.

Different areas of research include uranium and cancer incidence, breast and cervical cancer among Native American women, and an introduction into biology and chemistry.

NACRP's outreach program collaborates with Native American communities, hearing their needs and concerns about cancer.

Mansel Nelson, a Navajo hydrologist, works directly with students in the STAR Program. Nelson is senior program coordinator for the Tribal Environmental Education Outreach Program of the Institute for Tribal Environmental Professionals (ITEP), and has been involved in groundwater research on the Navajo reservation for many years.

Tijerina, a doctoral candidate in Political Science and Public Administration, also pointed out that students will participate in a seminar in Western and Native American approaches to science, two biology and chemistry labs and an exercise seminar.

"This seminar focuses on the physiological impact of exercise on the human body," Tijerina said.

In selecting students to the program, Tijerina looks to see that each has taken science and math courses and at their grade point averages. She also takes note of an interest in health research.

Health STAR students will also be afforded opportunities for scholarships while honing leadership skills. Participation will also encourage entry into health careers.

"What we do know is that there is a big gap in careers in the health professions--not only among Native Americans," Tijerina said. "Health careers is the way to go."

Salaries, she said, range from $26,000 at the technical level to $60,000-$200,000 at the professional entry level.

Biomedical professions through NAU include those in the public health, physical therapy, veterinary medicine, naturopathic medicine, podiatry, nutrition, paramedic and optometry fields.

Professors include Diane Stearns, Priscilla Sanderson, Matthew Gage, Jani Ingram, Alison Adams, and Charlotte Goodluck--professionals involved directly in cancer research as it relates to Native American communities. Mansel Nelson and David Coast are directly involved in the Health STAR program.

Students who are interested are encouraged to fill out an interest letter that can be mailed or left with a Multicultural Student Center representative. He or she should also call or contact the Aliticia Tijerina, the Health STAR coordinator for more information at 928-523-8383.

"If a student shows an interest in our program, we are willing to walk him or her through the application process," Tijerina said with a smile.

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