“As a Native Hawaiian, it’s so easy to feel like you don’t belong in the field of medicine,” Bree Kaneakua, a fourth-year medical student at the John A. Burns School of Medicine, said. “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.”
Medical school can be daunting for anyone.
Factoring in obstacles outside one’s control, like socioeconomic health disparities, can be even more challenging for students. Programs like the Native Hawaiian Center of Excellence (NHCOE) emphasize equity and offer students like Bree Kaneakua, a Native Hawaiian student from Hilo, an opportunity at leveling the playing field.
“To have this metaphorical ‘room’ at JABSOM, where I feel like I fit in and belong, it means a lot,” Kaneakua said. “That’s the key takeaway. It shows Native Hawaiian students that we belong in this field. There’s a place for us.”
NHCOE has been supporting the advancement of Native Hawaiian students and faculty in medicine for the past 30 years and is the only Center of Excellence in the nation that is focused on increasing the representation of Native Hawaiian students in medicine and other health professions. The NHCOE provides the inspiration, tools, and financial assistance it takes to achieve the dream many students have of being able to serve the people of Hawaii as doctors. Via a $3.4 million grant from the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), the NHCOE will be able to continue helping Native Hawaiians pursue careers in medicine and other health professions through education, research, and community initiatives.
“The journey to becoming a physician is long, but with help from programs like NHCOE, it really is not a matter of if, but when,” said Kaneakua.
When 2022 JABSOM graduate Dr. Dillon Tacdol entered medical school, he leaned on NHCOE for help.
“The Native Hawaiian Pathway to Medicine program was instrumental in helping me get into medical school,” he said. “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.”
NHCOE provides students assistance through every step of the medical school application process. Dr. Tacdol remembers Dr. Sasha Fernandes helping with mock interviews. “Dr. Fernandes gave me examples of questions I might be asked and helped me avoid pitfalls that other students sometimes make when interviewing,” he said.
Tacdol’s first interaction with NHCOE came from the Native Hawaiian Student Pathway to Medicine program. It led him to the ʻImi Hoʻōla program which paved the way for him to get into medical school by preparing him in basic sciences and understanding Problem Based Learning (PBL) framework.
Once JABSOM students, both Tacdol and Kaneakua, found the skills they learned in ʻImi Hoʻōla would serve as a source they’d tap into for years to come.
“Several PBL cases dealt with Hawaiian culture aspects like the annexation and medical problems Native Hawaiians face, like diabetes,” Tacdol said. “The cultural competency integrated into PBL definitely made me more conscious about the history and societal problems that occurred.”
“It gave me an incredible foundation of knowledge that I still pull from today,” Kaneakua said.
Both students say that by association with NHCOE, they connected organically with mentors.
“It set me up for success once I got into medical school. Now, in my fourth year, as I start to prepare applications to residency, I’m still pulling from the knowledge I got from NHCOE,” Kaneakua said.
“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,” Tacdol said.
Per Dr. Winona Lee, NHCOE Principal Investigator, “Our Native Hawaiian students are the future leaders that we need to ensure that the communities of Hawaiʻi receive the quality health care services that they deserve.”
NHCOE not only supports aspiring and current medical students but also offers programs that focus on faculty development, research, informational resources dissemination, and cultural competence training. For more information, contact NHCOE via their website at https://nhcoe.jabsom.hawaii.edu/.