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Alumna uses dual degrees to improve health of Native youth

Shardai Pioche came to college knowing she wanted to help improve the health of Native American communities. Now, she’s making good on that desire, using her degrees in Public Health and Psychology to make a positive impact on Native students as a program coordinator in the NativeVision program in Shiprock, New Mexico.

“Right now, we teach a health curriculum in school and after school,” Pioche (Public Health and Psychology, ’16) says. “It's an empowerment initiative. We touch on healthy lifestyles, nutrition, increased physical activity, and empowering them to overcome all the socioeconomic factors that they have to go through.”

The mission of the NativeVision Year Round Program, operated by the Johns Hopkins Center for American Indian Health, is to help Native youth from 3rd through 12th grades realize their full physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual potential. The program promotes physical fitness, healthy nutrition, and positive life skills.

NativeVision has reached more than 40,000 Native youth and tribal community members across the United States since starting in 1996 through a partnership with Johns Hopkins, the NFL Players Association, and the Nick Lowery Youth Foundation. The program’s goal is to engage professional and collegiate athletes as volunteer mentors for Native youth in summer camps.

The after-school programs that Pioche is involved with are an extension of this original mission. They reinforce the behavioral changes begun in the summer camps in five tribal communities: Santo Domingo Pueblo, the White Mountain Apache tribe, the Tonawanda Seneca Nation, and the Navajo Nation in both Tuba City, Arizona, and Shiprock.

The twelve lessons each semester are built around themes of “Be Active,” “Eat Healthy,” “No Drugs,” and “Stay in School.” For instance, one week focuses on the importance of drinking water; another compares sugar-added drinks to naturally sweetened beverages and teaches students how to read nutrition labels.

“There's one that we have, ‘Taste the Rainbow,’ which is just having them try different fruits and vegetables,” Pioche says. “A lot of kids have never had a red plum, or a purple grape, and it's kind of amazing. They don't even know what a jicama is. So we’re just giving them the education.”

The program extends well beyond nutrition to look at other activities like visualization, goal-setting, and resume-building. With high school students, the program emphasizes the possibility of a college education and gets students access to college tours as sophomores and juniors.

In addition to the weekly classes, Pioche coordinates two sports camps, one each in the fall and spring. These camps tie back to NativeVision’s origins, where athletes serve as mentors and role models for these youth. Last year, she says, the Fort Lewis College women’s lacrosse team helped facilitate the camp.

“It was awesome to have them come out and help with the lacrosse camp,” she says. “I’m hoping to establish another relationship like that to get the team back out here.”

All of these offerings are nonprofit services to these communities. But NativeVision is also an ongoing qualitative study. As program coordinator for the Shiprock site, Pioche collects process data to track student progress and ultimately improve the programming. She also administers surveys to the participating students at the start and end of the program.

“We look at how much knowledge they retained about the health education, their self-efficacy, and their behavioral issues, even regarding nutrition,” she explains. “And we look at their attitudes about different descriptors. Like, what are their attitudes toward school? The pre-survey says ‘I’m thinking about finishing high school,’ or ‘I don’t think I will finish high school.’ Then what are their attitudes toward higher education?”

Pioche hasn’t seen the final data from this past year’s program, but she says several of the students went from considering not completing high school to exploring going to college.

She’s also in charge of communicating the program, its goals, its methods, and these final results to the broader community.

“I present to the local chapter houses in the area,” she explains. “Since we are collecting data, we have to let them know what that looks like and what kind of data we’re collecting. Afterwards, I present the data back to the community to let them know the behaviors that changed.”

Pioche says that Public Health and Psychology was the perfect double major for her to go into this field. Public Health gives her the basis for understanding the community and individual health factors that contribute to overall wellness, and Psychology helps her understand the underlying behavioral patterns.

“Public Health and Psychology elaborate on each other,” she says. “I love to help people, and I wanted to improve the health of Native communities. Which means changing behaviors, so I needed to know the psychology.”

Now, Pioche is advancing her skills and knowledge through the University of Denver Graduate School of Social Work program, which partners with FLC to offer all courses in Durango.

Ultimately, whatever degrees she completes, Pioche is driven by the differences she makes in the lives of Native youth.

“I just love connecting with my students,” she says. “I don't automatically see if I'm influencing their behavior. But I can really connect with them and be there for them and let them know that I'm genuinely there for them. No matter what happens or what's going on. Just making a change or planting a seed is really rewarding for me. Definitely.”

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