HONOLULU (KHON2) — In 2022, four native Hawaiian students graduated from the John A. Burns School of Medicine. They are part of a growing movement to educate and bring forth native Hawaiians who can help care for their communities.

JABSOM’s Native Hawaiian Center of Excellence recently received a federal grant of $3.4 million to invest in the educational futures of native Hawaiians who want to go into the medical field.

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“A lot of the work that we do is to make sure our physician workforce looks like the patients that we serve, especially here in Hawai’i. We are working to support native Hawaiian students on their path to become physicians starting from the time they are pre-med students, all the way through medical school and residency training,” said Winona Lee, MD – Native Hawaiian Center of Excellence at John A. Burns School of Medicine.

The NHCOE is the only center in the nation that focuses on educating and providing stable support for native Hawaiians who want to go into a medical profession.

The grant will help native Hawaiian students throughout every step in their career path to ensure success and support. According NHCOE, many native Hawaiian students come from low-income homes with little to no higher education background. This directly impacts the success of native Hawaiian students.

“As a Native Hawaiian, it’s so easy to feel like you don’t belong in the field of medicine,” said Kaneakua, a fourth-year medical student at JABSOM. “It’s such an intimidating field for anyone. It’s challenging. So to feel like you don’t belong in 99% of the rooms you’re in comes with the territory.”

Creating a place for native Hawaiians in higher education has been a goal of University of Hawai’i.

“The Native Hawaiian Pathway to Medicine program was instrumental in helping me get into medical school,” said 2022 JABSOM graduate Dillon Tacdol.

“When I was applying to medical school, the MCAT was transitioning to a new system where they were integrating social sciences into the test. The test had changed. I was able to get books to study for it. The NHPM program also prepared me for medical school interviews and assisted with writing personal statements,” added Tacdol.

Factoring in things like socio-economic background and access to medical coverage is something that typically inhibits access to higher education for many indigenous communities around the country. As such, mentors and role models in medical professions are difficult to come by.

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Tacdol added, “NHCOE helped find mentors and other colleagues who provided insight and could relate to what I was going through as I navigated medical school and residency. Without NHCOE, I think it would have taken a lot longer to get to medical school. I’m very grateful to this program for helping me get to where I am today.”