UW School of Medicine Student Profile

Sarah Rasmussen-Rehkopf (Quileute/Makah), E-21

What’s your Foundations site? Alaska WWAMI in Anchorage

Where are you from? Sitka, Alaska

 Why did you select the UW School of Medicine/Alaska WWAMI for your education? Becoming a provider to serve rural and American Indian and Alaska Native (AIAN) communities is why I want to become a physician. I have seen and felt how both rural and AIAN culturally sensitive healthcare is needed and hope to work to address this as a medical student and physician. I’m particularly interested in pursuing rural primary care because I want to make sure that our communities have access to the resources they need and have a provider they trust.

I want to make sure youth are being encouraged and supported to be their authentic selves, with self-confidence, and the knowledge that they have a community and people who believe in them. As a medical student and physician, I want to continue to be involved in research and education addressing AIAN and rural health disparities; helping to create support pathways for youth interested in further education and healthcare careers and removing barriers for them.

I chose the University of Washington School of Medicine because I felt that this is a place where I would be supported as an Indigenous student while receiving an excellent education. The UW School of Medicine (UWSOM) has one of the largest AIAN student communities as well as many Indigenous faculty members. Having this support and community is very important to me and a big part of why I chose UWSOM. UWSOM also has connections to the town where I grew up and my tribes’ reservations which would allow me to potentially fulfill my clinical requirements in my home communities.

What do you like most about your medical education and training so far at the UW School of Medicine/Alaska WWAMI? I appreciate the opportunities to be involved with my communities. During our first year we have a primary care practicum and my Indigenous classmates and I have been able to advocate for our community involvement to be a priority within our curriculum by having this primary care practicum be at Southcentral Foundation, an Alaska Native-owned, nonprofit health care organization serving approximately 65,000 Alaska Native and American Indian people living around Anchorage and 55 rural villages across Alaska. In this way I’m able to fulfill my school required hours while learning in a tribally operated healthcare system, serving community I hope to work with as a physician. Through UWSOM I was also able to have a four-week, elective immersion experience in community medicine at the tribal healthcare system where I received my care growing up. This connection, being able to go back to where I’m from is important to me and I’m grateful for the opportunity to come back to my community in this way.

This engagement has been very special for me and I think it has a positive impact on patients as well. I’ve had more than one person share that they’ve never met an Indigenous medical student before and how it makes them feel seen that part of their care team comes from a similar community to theirs. Having this experience within communities I hope to serve one day reinforces my passion to become a physician and the reactions from the patients I’ve been able to speak with have continued to show me how important it is to have people like us in healthcare. I’m grateful that UWSOM has these relationships in place and is supportive of us as Indigenous students. I can’t overstate the importance of having other AIAN students as classmates and friends as well as the incredible support system of Indigenous faculty and support staff.

Why did you choose the Indian Health Pathway? 

I believe Indigenous voices are needed in healthcare and education. We offer unique knowledge and perspectives that have historically been overlooked and excluded, but by having a diverse and respectful space we can improve the educational opportunities and healthcare outcomes for everyone. I feel lucky to have built a community of Indigenous physicians, medical students, and healthcare professionals who I look up to and learn from, but I know we are still a very small percentage of healthcare students and providers. I know that it is all but guaranteed that all of my classmates will care for AIAN patients at some point and I believe that by learning with us and being involved in pathway programs such as the Indian Health Pathway it will set us up to give better care and be more understanding of our communities and the people we will serve.

Being part of the Indian Health Pathway is a way for me to complete my schoolwork while being able to stay connected with my community. As part of the pathway we take courses on the history of AIAN people and healthcare that I feel are so important for all healthcare providers to know. The Indian Health Pathway also has required rotations which align with the communities and healthcare systems I hoped to learn from in medical school. This pathway creates a framework and support system that has helped me continue to follow my passion for AIAN health while providing opportunities to learn from our communities. Indian Health Pathway helps highlight that both academic learning and community knowledge are important and valued at UWSOM and I’m grateful to be a scholar in this pathway.

What else would you like people to know about you and your experiences? I see the opportunity to study medicine and give back to communities as a healthcare provider as a gift and treat my training as such. I am able to pursue this path because of and for my family and community and I am forever grateful for the lessons and guidance I have had along the way. I hope that my future patients will be able to see me as someone like themselves providing their care. As an Indigenous person I carry knowledge of my communities that cannot be taught in a classroom. The first time I met a native physician I was 24 years old and that experience helped reassure me that there was a place for people like me in medicine. I hope to show other AIAN people that there is space for us in medicine while providing culturally informed care to our communities. I know my story and experience is powerful and I try to use it in a way that raises up my community and shows the importance of including our voice.

I acknowledge who I am as an Indigenous woman and the story I am bringing with me into medicine; the knowledge passed on to me by my community, growing up in a remote tribal community, coming to medicine after seeing and experiencing interactions that I cannot let happen again. I am determined to be the change and join others to improve the healthcare system. Living in a rural area should not mean that the healthcare my community receives is lesser than if they lived in an urban area and the ethnicity of my family should not determine our healthcare outcomes. I hold the suffering that my community and family have endured and I choose to use my voice and my actions to work towards equitable and anti-racist healthcare, so that all of us can experience better outcomes.

What do you like to do when you’re not studying or working? I love to run, spend time with friends, and be out on the water. My mom taught me to bead and sew which I like to do while listening to lectures. Some of my favorite memories from medical school so far have been shared meals with friends. Another great thing about being at the Alaska WWAMI campus means we’re able to still be involved in community and I’ve been able to deckhand still over the summer between first and second year and be involved in subsistence fishing.

Editor’s Note: In Spring 2024, Rasmussen-Rehkopf was named to the annual ElevateMeD Scholars list for 2024-25. ElevateMeD regularly supports medical students from across the country who will receive a $10,000 scholarship, mentoring, education, and further support from the organization. ElevateMeD has provided more than $1 million in scholarships and support since 2019. 20 ElevateMeD Scholars are chosen each year.

You can learn more about Rasmussen-Rehkopf by reading her essay published in First Alaskans magazine: Bridging Community Connections Through Healthcare Education and Training.

Originally published: February 23, 2023
Updated: May 21, 2024