Inspired by “Contagion,” student earns public health degree

Kandice Tanner and her dad Kendal pose with President Nez

Kandice Tanner’s life turned upside-down at the age of 9 when her mother died. She and her dad were forced to move from their home in Phoenix to Tuba City.  

Life on the Navajo Nation was tough—they struggled to find a place to live and were often without running water and electricity. But Tanner was surrounded by amazing friends and a father with whom she had grown so close. He was her best friend.  

“My dad raised me to be the best I could be in school, sports and as an individual,” Tanner said. “I was also taught that I would be part of the generation that would have to stand up and represent Indigenous students at the college level.” 

From a young age, Tanner knew that college was in her future. And, after watching “Contagion”—an action-thriller about a group of medical experts who must race against time to stop an unknown virus that ignites a global pandemic—she decided she wanted to pursue epidemiology—not knowing that a decade later, while pursuing her degree, she would find herself facing a reality way too much like the movie.  

Tanner enrolled at Northern Arizona University for one reason—to be close to her dad. She had grown to love life on the reservation, and the fact that NAU was so close to home made leaving for school a little less scary. For the first two years of college, Tanner double majored in pre-nursing and public health. She struggled during her freshman year; being away from her dad and home was harder than she thought. She felt alone and had a tough time fitting in.  

“My sophomore year was easier as I had found some friends as well as had the ability to go home whenever I wanted to. But my junior year, I was accepted into nursing school and left public health.” 

Then, COVID-19 hit. And suddenly, she was faced with the realities of nursing. 

“I could not handle how tough and mentally stressful nursing was. COVID made schooling even harder for me as I had a hard time studying by myself. It was heartbreaking, but my mental health was struggling, and I ultimately decided that dropping out of nursing school was the only way for my mental health to get better.” 

After dropping out of the program, her mental health improved, and this experience, though trying at times, solidified her desire to study epidemiology. The clinical hours she received while in nursing school allowed her the opportunity to intern with Johns Hopkins University—Center for American Indian Health, where she did research that directly affected her Native American community.  

Last weekend, Tanner graduated with a degree in public health and health sciences. The best part is that she not only took her dad’s advice to heart, he, too, realized he was just as capable of being the Indigenous representation he expected his daughter to be. Kendall Tanner enrolled in classes and graduated with his bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary studies and industrial leadership in the same ceremony as Tanner.  

“I honestly didn’t know how fast he was progressing with his classes until he asked me about graduation!” Tanner said. “I am so thankful to my dad for being my number one supporter while going to NAU. Without him, I don’t think I would have been doing well or graduating. I’m excited for both of us.” 

Tanner is still undecided about what to do after graduation, but, thanks to her degree, she has plenty of options.  

“I did like the research experience I got from my internship. I am thinking about looking further into laboratory science, such as applying to be a lab technician. Another route I am interested in is applying to grad school with a focus on epidemiology. Then, my third option is to apply for a public health technician position in my hometown.” 

No matter what she decides, her dad will be right there cheering her on.  


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Carly Banks | NAU Communications
(928) 523-5582 |

NAU Communications