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Oklahoma State University College of Osteopathic Medicine at the Cherokee Nation will celebrate a monumental achievement on May 16 as its inaugural class of 46 medical students graduates from the country’s first tribally affiliated medical school.

The commencement ceremony for both OSU College of Osteopathic Medicine and OSU-COM at the Cherokee Nation is Thursday, May 16 at 7:30 p.m., at the Mabee Center in Tulsa, 7777 S. Lewis Ave.

 

This milestone is the next significant step forward in addressing the health care needs of rural, underserved and tribal communities across Oklahoma.

Much like the founding of OSU College of Osteopathic Medicine in Tulsa, OSU-COM at the Cherokee Nation in Tahlequah was established with the mission to train physicians dedicated to serving rural and underserved populations.

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“These graduates, who have completed their training in the heart of the Cherokee Nation, embody the values of service, compassion and excellence that define both the Cherokee Nation and Oklahoma State University,” said OSU Center for Health Sciences President Johnny Stephens. “Their journey has been one of dedication, perseverance, and cultural understanding. As they embark on their careers, they will carry with them the unique perspective and knowledge gained from this groundbreaking partnership.”

About 35 percent of the students from the inaugural class matched with rural or tribal residency programs.

And 20 percent of the graduating class from OSU-COM at the Cherokee Nation are Native American from several tribes including the Cherokee Nation, Chickasaw Nation, Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma and the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma. It’s a substantial number compared to the roughly 0.2 percent of Native American students enrolled in medical schools nationally.

"As we celebrate the historic milestone of the first class of students graduating from the OSU College of Osteopathic Medicine at the Cherokee Nation, we honor the resilience of our ancestors who faced adversity with courage and determination. Today, their legacy lives on as this exceptional group of future doctors prepares to break barriers and forge new paths in health care,” said Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. “Their dedication not only addresses the critical shortage of rural doctors but also increases the representation of Native and Cherokee physicians within our health system and other tribal health systems in this state, ensuring top-notch care rooted in culture for generations to come. Our ancestors would undoubtedly be proud of their achievements, knowing that their perseverance continues to inspire progress and healing in our communities."

Dr. Kayse Shrum, president of OSU, said the students represent the fulfillment of many dreams over many years to create a medical school in partnership with the country’s largest tribal nation in the heart of Indian Country on the Cherokee Nation Reservation.

“A child growing up in northeast Oklahoma no longer has to leave this region to pursue their dream of becoming a doctor. They can attend medical school, complete their residency training, and practice medicine – all in the rural community of Tahlequah and under the auspices of OSU Medicine and the Cherokee Nation," Shrum said.

In October 2018, Shrum, who was the president of OSU Center for Health Sciences at the time, and then-Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Bill John Baker, announced the creation of OSU-COM at the Cherokee Nation, a medical school to be constructed in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, the headquarters of the Cherokee Nation.

A groundbreaking ceremony was held in spring of 2019 followed by a topping off ceremony later that fall. The emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic along with building supply chain issues in 2020 delayed the opening of the 84,000-square-foot medical school building until January 2021.

It hasn’t been an easy journey for the inaugural class who started coursework in August 2020. That first semester, they had to attend many classes virtually due to the pandemic and any required in-person classes were held at the Cherokee Nation Outpatient Health Center until the building was complete.

“The first semester of medical school is difficult. Compound the stress of moving, forming new relationships, learning a high volume of complex information during a global pandemic, and you begin to understand the challenges faced by the class of 2024,” said Dr. Natasha Bray, OSU-COM at the Cherokee Nation dean. “The class of 2024 demonstrated resilience and leadership. They developed deep friendships and a culture of support both in the learning environment and the community. They developed a deep, and I hope enduring, appreciation of the role of physician in service.”

Ashton Glover-Gatewood, an enrolled member of the Choctaw Nation and descendent of the Chickasaw and Cherokee Nations of Oklahoma, was working as a nurse and health care administrator at the Oklahoma City Indian Clinic when she applied to be part of the first class of medical students on the new Tahlequah campus.

“I love being a member of the inaugural class. We’ve been through a lot as a class. I think we had a unique set of challenges, but we’ve really grown together; we uplift each other, and we help each other. Our faculty, staff and facilities make this a premier medical school, especially for students interested in primary care, rural health and tribal health,” Gatewood said. “I also feel a responsibility to represent my tribe. I hope that my story can inspire others to continue pursuing their dreams, especially Native students and women who may not have many mentors in their communities.”

Bray said students in the inaugural class completed an immense number of community service hours including being trained and then administering COVID-19 vaccinations through Cherokee Nation Health Services, building homes with Tahlequah Habitat for Humanity, supporting Tahlequah’s Help in Crisis nonprofit organization, as well as serving many other community groups and organizations.

“I cannot adequately express my pride and admiration for the class of 2024. Their selfless service to each other and the communities we serve is admirable. Watching their growth and development of professional identity has been a deep honor,” she said. “I know they will do such meaningful and amazing things in their professional lives and will make a deep impact on the communities they will serve.”

Stephens said he is looking forward to the commencement ceremony and watching the inaugural class walk across the graduation stage as it is the culmination of a decade’s long pursuit to build a sustainable physician pipeline for rural and underserved Oklahoma.

“I can’t wait to congratulate them on their achievements and I’m looking forward to the positive impact they will undoubtedly have on the health and well-being of the communities they serve," he said.

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The Native News Health Desk is made possible by a generous grant from the National Institute for Health Care Management Foundation as well as sponsorship support from the American Dental Association. This grant funding and sponsorship support have no effect on editorial consideration in Native News Online.