Brenden Rosales stares intently at a thermometer as the rising mercury approaches 70 degrees Celsius. A concoction of stearic acid and cetyl alcohol simmers on a burner.
Once at 70, he mixes in some water, triethanolamine and glycerin, and then adds a few drops of fragrance – honey and cinnamon, a combination he heard works well. Stirring the mixture, Rosales watches as it thickens into hand cream like that used for eczema and arthritis.
It’s just another day at the Na-ha-shnee Camp. Rosales, an upcoming sophomore at Mount Tahoma High School in Tacoma and member of the Lummi Tribe, is one of 23 Native American high school students who explored a wide range of health science fields during the two-week camp at Washington State University Spokane.
During the day, the students cycle from laboratory to classroom to cultural learning sessions in an effort to immerse them in collegiate atmosphere while reminding them of their native heritage. The camp is part of a larger effort to solve the shortage of health care professionals in the Native American community, said Robbie Paul, director of the school’s Native American Health Sciences program and founder of the camp.
Paul, a Nez Perce member who has a doctorate in Leadership Studies from Gonzaga, said the camp aims to build confidence in students who might deal with teachers who have low expectations of them.
In its 19th year, the camp has participants from 13 tribes, some from as far away as Arizona’s Navajo Nation. Attendance has grown through recruitment visits to tribal and urban schools, word-of-mouth and the Internet, Paul said.
Of the more than 340 campers over the years, Paul estimates about 70 percent of them have gone on to college.
Paul joined the College of Nursing in 1995 to lead recruitment efforts, which included the camp, for Native American students. But she quickly realized the demand for health care professionals expanded beyond nursing.
The camp has grown from six to 12 days and added math, English and leadership training. Students also practice writing scholarship essays and interviewing with admissions counselors.
Emma Noyes, outreach coordinator for the program and a member of the Colville Confederated Tribes who joined WSU in November, led Na-ha-shnee for the first time this year. She said she remembers attending a similar camp in high school.
“It’s absolutely what made me want to go to school,” Noyes said. “I really believe it can be transformative.”
As one group of students made hand cream in the pharmaceutical lab, Nathanael Davis, a professor from Northwest Indian College, lectured in another classroom on environmental impacts of acid rain, fossil fuels and climate change.
“If we’re impacting our climate in a big way, it’s going to come back to haunt us, right?” Davis asked. “We’re just now starting to understand the effects of what we call climate change. And it’s really hard to measure sometimes. We’re talking global scales.”
The camp’s demands help emulate the experience of higher education because, Paul said, schools struggle just as much with retention as with recruitment.
“We have such high numbers of students not graduating from college,” she said. “We need to really encourage our youth to … realize it’s a step at a time, and you don’t become a doctor overnight.”
Paul presented the purpose of the camp as threefold: academic, leadership and cultural. For the latter, Paul uses stories to teach the students life lessons embedded in their tribal heritage.
“I firmly believe you have to know who you are so you can be empathetic to the other,” Paul said.
This is the third year of camp for Sarah Burke, an upcoming senior at Lummi Nation High School on the Lummi Reservation near Bellingham. Burke said she’s always been interested in science, but Na-ha-shnee helped her narrow it down.
“By the end of my senior year, I’ll be pretty certain because I’ve had these years of basically having a taste of many different professions in the medical field,” Burke said.
Burke said with a health science degree – at the moment, “Wazzu” is her top choice – she wants to go back to the Lummi Reservation and work at the tribal clinic.
“I could go back and help not only improve the clinic, but help people,” Burke said. “Native Americans, they’re known for being diabetic and all this other stuff. I could help teach them how to live healthier.”