Honouring the next generation of Aboriginal health leaders

(Edmonton) Alyssa Biasini was just one of those kids—the kind that loved learning and begged to go school even when sick. She also dreamed of going to the University of Alberta, and later, pursuing a career in health care.

With a little help from the Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry’s Indigenous Health Initiatives program, she’s accomplished both to become one of the first members of her family with a university degree, let alone a doctor of dental surgery. Her ancestry on her mother’s side is Blackfoot, from the Blood Tribe, so it’s a special feeling to land her first job practising in Hobbema, with plans to also work at a newly renovated clinic in Saddle Lake.

“There is a great need for care in our Aboriginal communities. Oral health is very important but sometimes that gets missed in these areas,” she said.

When she arrived at the U of A, Biasini hadn’t heard of the Indigenous Health Initiatives program but knew she wanted a career in health care. She got involved in her second year and through the program learned about dentistry and the varied career options available.

“It seemed like a great career,” she said, and at first envisioned working in remote parts of the developing world before realizing she could do good work closer to home. Through the program, Biasini got to work with Aboriginal youth from across the province, talking to them about oral health and how resources like the Indigenous Health Initiatives program could make their dreams possible.

About to mark its 25th year, the program is designed to increase the representation of Aboriginal students in health-care professions. Spots are reserved for top qualifying students—five in medicine and one each in medical laboratory science, dentistry and dental hygiene.

Inspire future health leaders

“Part of our responsibility is to reach out and inspire children from First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities, help them dream to finish high school, go to university and strive for medical school,” said Jill Konkin, associate dean in the Division of Community Engagement, which oversees the program. “It’s incumbent upon us to become more engaged with these communities—the need for health care and access to health care in most of our Aboriginal populations is significant.”

The program celebrated the accomplishments of its latest graduands with a special ceremony and awards luncheon June 14. The event featured a traditional Métis sash and eagle feather honouring ceremony by elders, and awards presentations.

For Biasini, the event marked an opportunity to connect with her First Nations heritage, sharing the experience with her mother and grandmother. It was a journey years in the making, one she’s glad happened at the U of A.

“It was a very spiritual experience and very exciting to share—a great way to honour our culture.”