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Bridging the Gap: How Roots to Wings Fosters Learning and Discovery, One Student at a Time

August 23, 2017

082417_Roots-to-Wings-GroupPhoto: Yakama Nation Elder Tony Washines (center) joins PNWU-COM 2015-16 Roots to Wings mentors – who always wear their white coats when serving youth in the program – along with Principal of White Swan High School and Mt. Adams School District (MASD) Joey Castilleja (second from right, first row).

A passion to give back to the community and transform lives is what inspires 2017 Pacific Northwest University of Health Sciences College of Osteopathic Medicine (PNWU-COM) graduate Cris Perez, DO, to pursue osteopathic medicine. And during his second year at PNWU-COM in 2015, he found the perfect way to be a role model and make a difference when he joined Roots to Wings. This interactive health sciences education pathway program gives osteopathic medical students – along with Native-American and Mexican-American students between grades six and 12 – opportunities to develop co-mentoring relationships. 

“I heard Roots to Wings was geared toward youth who were disadvantaged, and having a similar experience growing up I was attracted to the program,” he recalled. “As a teen I wasn't aware that I could do better in life until I met someone with a background similar to mine,” and he wanted to do his part to pay it forward to the next generation.

082417_Roots-to-Wings-Closing-1Drawing on students from Mt. Adams School District (MASD), Yakama Nation Tribal School (YNTS), Heritage University, and PNWU-COM, participants forge bonds with one another that serve as touch points for building cross-cultural appreciation and raising awareness of educational opportunities. Through shared learning experiences, aspiring physicians from PNWU-COM gain a deeper understanding of both Yakama Nation and Mexican-American cultures, values, and traditions, while the elementary school, middle school, and high school students from MASD and YNTS are awakened to the exciting possibilities of what attaining a higher education, particularly in medicine, can afford. 

Photo: Yakama Nation Elder Zelda Winnier, Cultural Teacher for YNTS, and Yakama high school student dancers celebrated the opening ceremony for the
Roots to Wings 2016-17 mentors, explaining the meaning and significance of the Yakama native dances.

Interacting with these students during writing workshops, engaging in one-on-one conversations, and giving tours of the anatomy lab empowered Dr. Perez and opened new doors for Yakama youth in powerful ways.

“Being in medical school is hard,” said Dr. Perez, who is now in his first year of residency at East Pierce Family Medicine in Puyallup, Washington. “People enter medicine to help, but it can be easy to become so focused on your studies and stress out about doing your best that your altruistic nature gets lost in trying to score well on the next test. Roots to Wings allows you the chance to give back, and brings to life why you enter medicine in the first place. Quite a few of the students I met were very vocal about how the program opened their eyes once they realized they can go as far in life as they want if they set their minds to it.”

It is this vision of creating a pathway for the underrepresented youth of the Yakima Valley to pursue a career in the health professions that inspired Mirna Ramos-Diaz, MD, Assistant Professor of Family Medicine and Pediatrics and Course Director for the 2nd-year Clinical Skills course in the Osteopathic Medicine program at PNWU-COM, and PNWU-COM President Keith Watson, DO, to found Roots to Wings. Thomas A. Scandalis, DO, Dean of PNWU-COM, also played a central role in the formation of the program as an unwavering supporter – offering steadfast leadership and ensuring funding needs were met from day one.

Dr. Ramos-Diaz and Dr. Watson collaborated with community leaders, educators, and students to structure the program’s curriculum in a way that gives PNWU-COM students the opportunity to serve elementary school, middle school, and high school youth who live in native Yakama lands so that the future physicians could experience Yakama and Mexican-American values and traditions. The Yakama and Mexican-American students can also become more actively aware of the higher education pathways available in the Yakima Valley through co-mentorship with the medical students.

The foundations of Roots to Wings stem from a 2013 paper written by Dr. Bernadette Howlett and Dr. Jane Austin (“Transformative Co-Mentoring”) that establishes four unifying principles – egalitarianism, collaboration, coming from a place of not knowing, and an openness to learning – that drive the program.

082417_Roots-to-Wings-Closing-3​Photo: Aztec dancers celebrated the opening ceremony for Roots to Wings 2016-17.

“We wanted to bring our students back across the gap,” which separates the Upper Yakima Valley from the Lower Yakima Valley, “to native lands,” Dr. Ramos-Diaz explained. “The only way to ensure the students form a bond with the people they will serve is to help them meet the people they will serve.”

“We honor the values and traditions of the Yakama people,” in the name of the program and in how it is implemented, she continued. Roots to Wings celebrates the identity of the Yakama Nation – which is comprised of 14 tribes and bands – and represents a parallel between osteopathic medicine, the Yakama people, and Mexican Americans. While the osteopathic approach to medicine is defined by a commitment to finding health in the body, the goal of Roots to Wings is to identify and cultivate the health of the community by tapping into the children of the community.

  • “Roots” refers to plants, such as Bitter Root and indigenous berries like Huckleberries, which symbolize food and medicine – or the values and traditions – sustaining the Yakama people. For the Mexican Americans, “roots” refers to the corn, which also represents their values and traditions.
  • “Wings” point to the eagle that symbolizes the native traditions, customs, and values of the Yakama people and Mexican Americans. It reflects the aspiration of the youth to “spread their wings,” explore what’s beyond the horizon, and discover their respective professions. Like the eagle, the children of the Yakima Valley are always welcome and encouraged to come home to serve the community (or “the nest”) from which they came.

As the only faculty member at PNWU-COM who works as a pediatrician for Mexican Americans and Native Americans, Roots to Wings holds a special meaning to Dr. Ramos-Diaz, who is committed to working with the community to be a life-changing agent for the youth of the Yakima Valley.

“I love the land, I love the people, I love serving others here and I wanted to give something back to my community that is long-lasting after I am gone,” she said. “When you give something to others there is the hope that will change the lives of the children of the Valley. Roots to Wings brings together everything I love. It is the greatest gift I have to offer.”

Sukhbir Randhawa, fourth-year osteopathic medical student at PNWU-COM who participated in Roots to Wings during its inaugural year in 2013 as a student leader, underscores the value of the program as an opportunity for gaining applicable, lifelong skills that help future physicians become more attuned to the needs of those they serve.

“The creation of Roots to Wings happened organically and played a huge role in my physician training,” Sukhbir said. “When you have an idea, you talk to your peers and something beautiful can happen. Everyone who participated made this experience into their own. Everyone worked together and because of what I learned from helping to found Roots to Wings, I will be more confident in my ability to empower communities wherever I serve patients as a future physician.”

082417_Roots-to-Wings-Closing-4Shelley Higman, fourth-year osteopathic medical student at PNWU-COM who served as a mentor to three students in Roots to Wings in 2013 and 2014, agrees that the program prepares aspiring physicians to deliver whole-person care on a variety of levels, from increasing cultural competency about native tribes to broadening perspectives so medical students are more sensitive to the comfort levels of patients. With greater understanding of how different populations are unique in terms of need, aspiring doctors learn to listen more effectively.

“Anytime we can interact with those we don’t usually spend time, especially outside the medical community, it builds our emotional intelligence and our compassion. It's an education you can't get any other way. It's the most valuable thing I did in medical school,” Shelley said.

Photo: Lorena Galvan, a Mexican-American Aztec dancer and current third-year osteopathic medical student at PNWU-COM, participated in 
Roots to Wings as a mentor in the 2015-16 and 2016-17 academic year. She also performed Aztec dancing in 2016 for Yakama and Mexican-American students to demonstrate their common roots and traditions.

As a community-led initiative, the program is guided by a Steering Committee comprised of outstanding leaders who play an instrumental role in the success and growth of Roots to Wings, serving in a broad range of community and education capacities. These include Davis Washines, Chair of the General Tribal Council of the Yakama Nation; Maxine Janis, MPH, RDH, ABD (Oglala Lakota), President’s Liaison to Native American Affairs at Heritage University; Jon Claymore, Superintendent of YNTS; Gretchen Feider, Special Coordinator Education Coordinator of YNTS; Dr. Curt Guaglianone, Superintendent of MASD; Joey Castilleja, Principal of White Swan High School and MASD; Tracy Smith, Vice-Principal of MASD and White Swan High School; Noemi Barbosa, GEAR Up Case Manager at White Swan High School (MASD); Michele McCarroll, PhD, Chief Research Officer at PNWU-COM; Anita Quintana, Assistant Director, Office of Scholarly Activity at PNWU-COM; and Mirna I. Ramos-Diaz, MD, Program Director of Roots to Wings at PNWU-COM.

Roots to Wings enjoys financial support from the Puyallup Tribe of Indians, the Tulalip Tribes, the Yakima Valley Community Foundation, and PNWU-COM. To learn more about this dynamic program, watch Dr. Ramos Diaz’s TEDx Yakima Salon presentation, which explores the challenges and successes of uniting diverse neighboring communities through collaboration.

This story is the first in a series that will take an up-close look at the mutually beneficial partnership of Roots to Wings, examining its transformative impact on Yakama Nation and Mexican-American elementary school, middle school, and high school students, as well as the tremendous value of the program to aspiring physicians attending PNWU-COM. The next piece will focus on how participation in Roots to Wings during high school helped ignite an interest in medicine among Yakama students who now pursue higher education.

Photo credits: Mirna I. Ramos-Diaz, MD, MA, FAAP, Roots to Wings Program Director and Assistant Professor of Family Medicine and Pediatrics, PNWU-COM.