How NAU is helping reduce health inequities among Indigenous populations

Students and faculty sit at a table

A few years ago, Nicolette Teufel-Shone realized that one of the most effective ways to address health disparities among Indigenous people is by ensuring the health care providers serving a community offering culturally informed services and programs. 

The major obstacle? At the time, no program existed to prepare providers to offer those kinds of services. 

To address this need, Northern Arizona University’s Center for Health Equity Research (CHER) began a collaboration with Diné College, a tribal college of the Navajo Nation, Navajo Native American Research Center for Health (NARCH) Partnership. From there, the Navajo NARCH Partnership joined with the newly formed Master of Public Health (MPH), Health Promotionto NAU to create the Indigenous Health Track. Four years later, the innovative program is still only one of five such programs offered in universities nationwide. 

“This educational proposal aligned with the aims of the Navajo NARCH Partnership to build an educational pathway from high school to a MPH for Native Americans interested in gaining degrees in public health,” said Teufel-Shone, associate director of CHER and an NAU alumna. 

The goal of the MPH program is to prepare public health professionals through hands-on, learner-centered educational strategies to address the health needs of diverse, underserved communities. 

The Indigenous Health Track was specifically designed for students interested in managing public health programs within Native American communities. Students graduate with the ability to plan, implement and assess public health programs while considering cultural attributes of the tribal communities they serve. Currently, there are 13 students in the Indigenous Health Track, some hailing from the Navajo Nation, San Carlos Apache Tribe, Hopi Tribe and Lakota Nations. 

“I am grateful to get to meet and learn from Native students each year and to have their perspectives and experience benefitting the entire class,” said Brettania O’Connor, MPH program director and assistant clinical professor in the Department of Health Sciences. 

After graduation, Indigenous Health Track alumni have secured positions as research coordinators, program managers, health educators, program coordinators and surveillance support and epidemiology. They also have worked with Coconino County and CHER. Graduate students in the program also plan to enter public health doctoral programs or medical programs. 

“All MPH-Health Promotion, Indigenous Health Track graduates have found employment in programs or institutions that serve Native American people, so our graduates’ skills are much needed in the public health work forces,” Teufel-Shone said. 

Marissa Tutt, a 2020 graduate from the program, now is as a research coordinator for CHER and works primarily with Native American communities in Arizona, New Mexico and Montana. 

first NAU Master of Public Health-Indigenous track alum Andria Begay, Kristen Tallis, Rebecca Chee, Lyle Becenti, Marissa Tutt, and Kalvina Belin.
The inaugural class of NAU’s Master of Public Health-Indigenous track, from left to right: Andria Begay, Kristen Tallis, Rebecca Chee, Lyle Becenti, Marissa Tutt and Kalvina Belin. The students graduated in 2020.

“From COVID-19 vaccine education to utilizing motivational interviewing for oral health, it’s been an amazing opportunity to learn and grow,” Tutt said, who learned of the Indigenous Health Track as an undergraduate from one of her NAU professors, who recommended the program to her.“There are many Indigenous/Native American public health professionals out there who want to further their public health training, to not only better their community but to also make an impact in this world. This program allows them to do so. It creates amazing Indigenous public health professionals who are ready to return home or make an impact in Western society.” 

 From her master’s studies, Tutt said she uses Indigenous determinants of health, Indigenous research frameworks and health communication in her work. 

“These concepts play an important role in my position,” she said. “They, and the constant learning each day, have helped me become a better health professional, and they have allowed me the opportunity to share my knowledge with other Indigenous communities.” 

The program, which can be completed in about two years, includes topics such as social and structural determinants of health, behavior change counseling, environmental health, health policy and management, chronic disease epidemiology and prevention, public health and intervention mapping, Indian health and health care systems, resilience, leadership and governance on tribal lands, and community-based participatory research to improve health equity. 

“Many students bring considerable lived experience to the MPH-Health Promotion, Indigenous Health Track,” Teufel-Shone said. “Guiding them to see and understand how their experiential knowledge can be integrated with public health education yields graduates well equipped to serve Native communities.” 

In addition to the Master of Public Health, Health Promotion, Indigenous Health Track, NAU offers an online Master of Public Health–Health Promotion, a Master of Public Health, Nutrition and a Public Health Graduate Certificate. 

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Lisa Dahm | Center for Health Equity Research

NAU Communications