NAU’s Dream Catcher program inspires Native middle school students to pursue careers in healthcare


Hannah Saunders


After halting the program for two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Northern Arizona University’s (NAU) Dream Catcher Program has returned. The program inspires Native American middle school students to pursue careers in the healthcare field through mentoring and hands-on educational activities. 

The Dream Catcher initiative is part of an overarching program called Native Journey to Academic Success (NJAcS), which falls under NAU’s College of Health and Human Services. NJAcS is funded by the John and Sophie Ottens Foundation, which has supported the health and well-being of Native Americans for nearly two decades.

Regina Eddie, assistant professor at NAU’s School of Nursing who oversees the Dream Catcher program, spoke with State of Reform about the first Dream Catcher session since 2020, which occurred on March 3rd.

Eddie said the goal of Dream Catcher is “to address the concerns and to challenge our students—Native American youth—to do better academically, and to realize that what they’re doing now at this stage is important.”

Native Americans are the least represented ethnic group in the healthcare industry. Eddie said the most recent report she saw regarding healthcare workforce representation stated that only about 0.5% of the nursing workforce is Native American, with similar percentages for physical therapists.

“This whole program with Dream Catcher is one initiative to help begin addressing that,” Eddie said. “When the program started, we began a partnership with the Flagstaff Unified School District.”

The Dream Catcher initiative serves Native American students in sixth through eighth grades, who are bussed into NAU’s campus for a five-to-six hour day. During these day-trips, students gain hands-on learning experience about different health careers, such as nursing, dental hygiene, and physical therapy. During last month’s Dream Catcher event—which involves all of NAU’s health programs—about 43 students attended and were divided into about six groups, which would rotate learning sessions every 30 minutes. 

“The whole goal of this is hands-on activities to engage the students, make it interesting, make it fun, and show them the tools that health professions use,” Eddie said.

During a session about the nursing field, students engaged in a math activity where they had to conduct a drug calculation, which helped show them why math is important. NAU’s dental hygiene faculty led a lesson on teeth cleaning, and provided students with teeth models and scrapers to understand how to remove plaque buildup.

“The (physician assistant) faculty brought their suture kits, so they set up suture kits for all the students, and they would actually handle the sutures and practice,” Eddie said.

Workbooks were also created for the students, which were used during the learning sessions, but also as something the middle schoolers could take home with them. The workbooks include brief descriptions of what each health profession does and how to become one.

“We’re hoping that it serves kind of as a resource, a tool for families—for parents to see back home,” Eddie said.

Prior to diving into these hands-on learning activities, an opening conversation is held with the middle schoolers about what they see when they visit the hospital or healthcare facilities within their communities. Eddie said one student shouted, ‘There’s no Native doctors!’ and discussed the importance of representing change.

“If you go to school, you can be the one to go home and help your grandma and grandpa—help your community,” Eddie said.

During their visit, students were introduced to NAU’s dining services, which Eddie describes as an experience in itself.

“It’s a-la-carte and they choose, and they were like, ‘So we can eat whatever we want?’ And it’s like, ‘Yeah, but just make sure you only get what you’re going to finish,’” Eddie said, chuckling. 

Eddie heard positive feedback from the middle school teachers who attended the day-trip to NAU, who said it was the first field-trip the students had taken since the COVID-19 pandemic. The Native middle school students also showed enthusiasm throughout the day by asking where or what they were going to do next, and many commented on how “cool” the different activities were.

“Overall, I think they were just really taken by the experience,” Eddie said, while mentioning that she still has to evaluate student responses from a survey about the program. “We’re all curious to see what part of the day they enjoy[ed] the most.”

The Dream Catcher program previously focused on Native American middle school students within the Flagstaff School District, but for the past several years—prior to COVID-19— the initiative began reaching out to schools on the Navajo Nation reservation. 

While the Dream Catcher initiative is offered during spring once an academic year, Eddie said she’s holding conversations with her colleagues at NAU to figure out if another Dream Catcher event could be offered in the fall. Going forward, Eddie’s goal is to rotate middle schools through the program and reach more students.

“We actually have schools that are lined up waiting, basically,” Eddie said. “I was at a meeting about a month-and-a-half ago, and even got requests from the Hopi Tribal Nation and White Mountain Apache Reservation. So it’s definitely a program that [has] a lot of room to expand, but there’s few resources.”