Investing in Indigenous youth through Native Spirit – NAU

Amanda Hunter’s commitment to Indigenous health equity, specifically for youth and young adults, is shaping her prolific work as a Center for Health Equity Research (CHER) postdoctoral scholar. 

Her interest in developing Indigenous health equity started almost 10 years ago. After earning her bachelor’s degree in physiology, Amanda Urbina, now Hunter, spent two years working in a doctor’s office and as a pharmacy technician. 

“It really opened my eyes to the parts of the medical system that aren’t working so well,” she said. “Patients would spend 10 minutes with the doctor and come out with a new prescription.” 

As a pharmacy technician, she saw these same patients had unmanageably long lists of medications. 

“A lot of the time they wouldn’t know what half of the medications were for and they didn’t recognize the name of the prescriber,” she said. “I kept thinking to myself, ‘There has to be a better way,’ and wondering what are we doing as a society to prevent people from getting into this cycle.” 

She decided to apply for a graduate program and found the University of Arizona’s Master of Public Health (MPH) in health behavior and health promotion through a Google search. 

“I applied for the program and completely fell in love with public health,” Hunter said. “It allowed me to make so many connections between the behaviors I was seeing in our patients but also in my own community and family.” 

Relying on influential mentors 

Growing up, she said her parents inspired her to get through school. 

“They both got professional degrees while my sisters and I were in school,” she said. “I remember seeing my parents struggle with their schoolwork, staying up late and working on the weekends all while raising us. I figured if my parents could get through school while raising four girls, I could get through two semesters of physics.” 

She said that professionally, since her graduate school days, she has been inspired by Nicolette Teufel-Shone, now associate director of CHER, while Teufel-Shone was on the faculty at the University of Arizona. 

“I started grad school knowing I wanted to work with Indigenous communities,” Hunter said. “Naturally, I read Dr. Tefuel-Shone’s work and signed up for her class during my first semester. I was inspired by the amount of time she spent working with Indigenous communities, building equitable partnerships over the years and talking about her work as a community project, not just as a university-developed project.” 

She said that Teufel-Shone has also been a great mentor for her throughout her graduate school years. 

“Since I started working with her she referred to me as her colleague, which has helped me develop confidence in myself,” Hunter said. “I aspired to emulate Dr. Teufel-Shone’s manner of working with Indigenous communities and students in my own work.” 

Creating the Native Spirit program for Indigenous youth 

For her internship, Hunter began developing the Native Spirit program, which is dedicated to building strong and resilient Indigenous youth. 

“I worked in partnership with a rural Indigenous community here in Arizona and the Boys & Girls Club (BGC) to develop, implement and evaluate the Native Spirit program using pre- and post-tests to measure changes in cultural identity, resilience and classroom behavior.” 

She said her MPH research was her first experience working with an Indigenous community in a research capacity. She continued to develop her research skills by expanding the Native Spirit program for her doctoral research in 2018. 

Native Spirit was developed with community partners and piloted and evaluated with 30 Indigenous adolescents, ages 9-18, at three Boys and Girls Clubs on two Arizona reservations, one rural- and one urban-based. She said their results have shown increases in youth resilience, cultural identity and self-esteem since the program began. 

Hunter said that pilot funding she received this fall through the Southwest Health Equity Research Collaborative’s Pilot Project Program has allowed her to continue developing the Native Spirit program. She also recently submitted a proposal to the National Institutes of Health to continue expanding the Native Spirit program with her community partners. 

“The project is important because it gives Indigenous adolescents another opportunity to connect with their community and the community’s cultural values in a format [after-school program] that is accessible for them,” Hunter said. “We know that cultural engagement supports prevention of risky behaviors and promotion of positive development for Indigenous adolescents and, unfortunately, Indigenous peoples have not attained full health potential due to traumatic loss of cultural practices, language, life and land at the hands of U.S. systemic forces. 

“My goal is to continue expanding and evaluating the program to learn more about the relationship between Indigenous cultural identity and health.” 

Commitment to volunteerism 

Hunter said her inspiration for working with youth started with her love for kids. 

“My first niece was born when I was in high school, and I completely fell in love with her but I couldn’t see her as often as I wanted to,” she said. “I started working with kids as a way to spend time with kids her age and luckily I learned a lot of fun activities and songs that kids love so I can sing them with her. I kept working with kids, and my research focuses on youth because I have learned that a lot of our lives are shaped by our childhood. With my interest in prevention, I recognized the need to start young!” 

In 2017, Hunter received a Certificate of Special Congressional Recognition from Congressman Raul Grijalva for service and commitment to Native Americans in cultural enrichment, community leadership and cancer prevention.  

In 2019, Hunter was named a Native Children’s Research Exchange Student Scholar, a position she will hold until 2022. 

Native Children’s Research Exchange is a NIDA-funded mentorship program that has allowed me to learn from other Indigenous colleagues and mentors as we all make strides to impact adolescent Indigenous health through research,” she said. 

Her community service includes mentoring for the Native Student Outreach, Access, Resiliency program; and the American Indian & Indigenous Health Alliance. She is co-founder of the Yaqui Student Alliance and has volunteered at Boys and Girls Clubs of America and the Tucson Indian Center youth programs and as a soccer coach. 

Contributing to CHER as a postdoctoral scholar 

At CHER, Hunter is co-investigator in the following Southwest Health Equity Research Collaborative projects: “Ending the HIV Epidemic in Rural Oklahoma (e-HERO): An HIV/STI Intervention for Sexual Minority Men and American Indian Men,” “Resilience, Mental Wellbeing, and COVID-19,” and “Native Spirit: Development, Implementation, and Evaluation of a Culturally-grounded After-school Program.” 

“I feel so lucky to be working with everyone at CHER and SHERC. I have learned from center leaders, professors, colleagues and students from multiple departments,” she said. “There is so much room for interdisciplinary collaboration and it’s exciting. I hope to contribute my expertise in Indigenous adolescent health to interdisciplinary teams and CHER, SHERC and across NAU. I also hope to contribute my knowledge on the relationship between cultural identity and health for Indigenous adolescents. 

Community-based research with Indigenous communities and adolescents is really heading in an awesome direction and I am excited to contribute.” 

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