Alumna Forges Unprecedented Path for Native Americans

Published: March 23, 2015 | Author: Jessica Young | Read Time: 3 minutes

Crystal Sekaquaptewa is SUU's first Native American student to become a dentist.The health clinic stands in the midst of traditions as ancient as the winds that buffet the mesas and desert lands that stretch to the horizon. And so, at the border of the 27,000-square-mile Navajo Nation, it’s unusual to see a Native American woman tending to the sick, but for Crystal Willie Sekaquaptewa it has been her only desire.

“I had never seen a Native American doctor, especially a woman, when I was a child and I always thought how amazing it would be to have a Navajo doctor who understood the people,” said Sekaquaptewa, who grew up on a New Mexico reservation in the Navajo Nation and graduated from Southern Utah University in 2010.

While in attendance at SUU, Sekaquaptewa received vital support from SUU’s Rural Health Scholars (RHS), which allowed her to volunteer at the Cedar City Community Dental Clinic and the Paiute Tribe of Utah.

Administered by the Utah Center for Rural Health, RHS prepares students for admission to medical, dental, and other health professions, and because of this influential program, SUU now boasts a 100 percent acceptance rate for students applying to medical school.

The program supports students from rural areas, such as Sekaquaptewa, to gain an education and then helps them return to those areas to practice medicine. While in the program, students increase their likelihood of being accepted into a professional healthcare program and provide medical services to underserved areas.

Being a first-generational college student, Sekaquaptewa was able to use RHS as a launch pad and became the first Native American SUU graduate to be accepted into a professional program.

Sekaquaptewa continued to be a rarity as she began attending Creighton University School of Dentistry and was among just one percent of the 77,000 students seeking their doctorate degrees in the United States, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges.

She kept breaking down barriers upon graduation from Creighton when she was hired at the Monument Valley Community Health Center as a dentist, the first Native American woman dentist to be hired within the Utah Navajo Health System.

“I have been very fortunate to have people like director of Rural Health Scholars to the dean at Creighton that supported my goals and helped me become who I am today,” said Sekaquaptewa.

Moving seamlessly between the medical and traditional worlds, Sekaquaptewa is well aware of how the cultural beliefs of her patients can affect what she does, something she believes can’t be done by doctors who are not Native American.

“The patients automatically trust me,” stated Sekaquaptewa. “There isn’t a language barrier, and I understand their diet and culture from experience, things that a white doctor can’t.”

Beyond the dentist’s chair, Sekaquaptewa continues to seek out opportunities to impact the community she loves and is touring Navajo Nation schools, living proof to the Native American students that their ethnicity doesn’t determine their ability to succeed.

“These students see professional careers out of their reach and see their race as a detriment, so I go and show them otherwise,” said Sekaquaptewa. “They shouldn’t feel held back because of their race. I am proof that there are resources out there, like SUU’s Rural Health Scholars, that will help get you scholarships and connections to make it happen.”

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