Dream catchers' return to campus (2023)

Over 40 students fromDilcon Community School— a kindergarten through eighth grade school on the Navajo Nation — gathered at the NAU Health Professions and Nursing Sciences Buildings on March 3 for the university’s Dream Catcher event. At the event, students attended six sessions featuring various health professionals ranging from a physical education teacher to a dentist.

Throughout the day, students practicing a range of medical techniques traveled from room to room in the College of Health and Human Services — in some, they made medical stitches on suture boards; in others, they performed dental examinations. However, these students were not at the graduate or undergraduate level.

They were middle schoolers just stepping into the world of healthcare professions.

Regina Eddie has been the program coordinator of the NAU-created Dream Catcher program since its inception in 2012. The program has been running for 12 years, yet this was the first event since COVID-19 put it on hold three years ago.

The goal of the program is to entice Native American youth to gain interest in health professions, Eddie said.

To achieve this, NAU faculty and student volunteers host a middle school from northern Arizona for a one-day healthcare event to provide Native American students with hands-on learning opportunities in several health professions. This year, Dilcon students from the Navajo Nation came to campus.

The program is a part of NAU’s Native Journey to Academic Success and focuses on decreasing the disproportion of Native Americans in the health workforce by increasing recruitment at an early age, Eddie said.

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Native Americans make up 2.9% of the U.S. population, according to the 2020 Census. Of the active physicians who work in healthcare, 0.3% identify as Native American.

“In health profession careers in general, Native Americans are the most underrepresented,” Eddie said. “With this program, it's part of a pipeline initiative in hopes to reach Native American youth, to get them to see health professionals, to see the university college setting.”

Eddie said the program name is rooted in Native American culture. A dream catcheris a traditional Native American piece that originated from the Ojibwe Tribe. It is most commonly a symbol of protection from evil and negativity.

“The design of a dream catcher is to catch good luck, positive energy [and] dreams,” Eddie said. “So, we chose that as our motto for this program — turning education dreams into reality.”

The six health professions represented on Friday included physical education, physician assistant, nursing, physical therapy, dental hygiene and occupational therapy.

Students began the morning at the physical education session run by health and science professor Steve Palmer and several of his students, including NAU sophomore and physical education student Madeline Cleis. At the session, Dilcon students participated in group drawing challenges, jump-roped, tossed a beach ball in a circle and used team-building skis, where groups of four students cooperated to move across the hall together on one pair of skis.

“It's to get the three Ws, so wake up, warm up, wiggles out,” Cleis said. “And just get them involved to want to do [physical education] for the rest of their lives and show that NAU does have a [physical education] program and that this is a really great opportunity for them.”

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Moving on from the physical education session, Dilcon students split into 30-minute intervals at the other five sessions.

At the physical therapy session, Academic Coordinator of Clinical Education Andrea Trujillo Lerner re-created an average day as a physical therapist for students.

“So, we have different stations set up to teach them about the bones, the muscles, exercises and other fun things like reflexes,” Trujillo Lerner said. “We try to give them a little preview of what physical therapists do and potentially a day in the life of a physical therapist.”

Students practiced reflex exams with reflex hammers, explored the human bones with a model skeleton, learned balance board exercises and performed other exercises physical therapists may have a patient practice.

Trujillo Lerner said her experience introducing the students to the healthcare field was wonderful.

“It's great to be able to introduce students at this age to our profession because research shows that when you introduce a profession to a student at this age and the junior high region, they tend to learn more about and potentially [come] into that profession,” Trujillo Lerner said.

During the physician assistant session, students learned how to use wound closure techniques with suture boards simulating human skin. Palmer said it was a popular session among students.

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“I heard a lot about sutures [from the students] and putting sutures in fake skin,” Palmer said. “I know that was a big one, and they get excited about it.”

The dental hygiene session provided groups with a hands-on experience with dental equipment. Students scraped simulated tartar off fake teeth, polished teeth and created 3D digital dental impressions with an intraoral scanner. Some participants posed as patients and had intraoral scans done by NAU dental students.

At the nursing session, the sound of babies crying and patients coughing echoed through the room. Dilcon students practiced real-life situations in a nursing simulation lab. They took heart rates and listened to lung sounds on infant, child and adult mannequins.

Students also learned and worked through common medical math equations and calculations during the nursing session.

Eddie said the Dream Catcher faculty value encouraging growth in basic school concepts such as math, science and reading. They want the students to see the importance of these areas now so the middle schoolers will take their education seriously and be better prepared for high school and college, she said.

“They're able to see the use of math here as a nurse,” Eddie said. “Emphasizing the importance of these basic concepts they're learning now that they have to apply themselves to.”

The sixth session students attended was occupational therapy led by Professor Juliana Willis.

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Instead of having students perform exercises as an occupational therapist, Willis had students do activities simulating visual, balance, sensory and fine motor impairments so they could understand what occupational therapy patients potentially experience. These activities included tossing a beach ball with visual impairment glasses, putting beans in deflated balloons while wearing thick gloves and stacking blocks as they stood on balancing pads.

Along with providing learning experiences for middle schoolers, the Dream Catcher event offers teaching opportunities for university students.

Cleis said she enjoyed her time volunteering with the physical education session and teaching kids to work together during activities.

“It makes me realize how much I really do want to be a P.E. teacher,” Cleis said. “I specifically want to teach in a middle school [to] high school range, so being with kids 7 through 9 has been such a great experience.”

The student teachers also serve as an additional view into college life for visiting middle schoolers.

Palmer has been a part of the Dream Catcher program since its early years, and he said he hopes after attending a Dream Catcher event students will gain a desire for a college education by participating in the activities and interacting with NAU students. Palmer said he wants them to realize they can learn and have fun at the same time in college.

“It's just fun seeing the middle school kids warm up as time goes on and also seeing the university students warm up to the middle schoolers,” Palmer said. “It's really fun to see that growth. Hopefully, as [university students] talk with the middle schoolers, some of these kids start really thinking about going to NAU or some institute of higher education.”

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The Dream Catcher program has grown over the years to reach more middle schoolers throughout northern Arizona.

The program started off serving local Flagstaff Unified School District students, but as it continued, faculty began receiving requests from schools on the Navajo Nation. Eddie said Hopi Tribe schools have become interested in the program and reached out.

Faculty have only been able to put on the Dream Catcher event once an academic year so far, Eddie said. However, with more requests, she said the faculty is considering holding it once a semester to provide more health occupation learning opportunities to Native American youth.


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