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Demystifying the college experience

Public health PhD student lights the way for tribal youth

picture of Sydelle Harrison

As a self-described Tribal student, mother and scientist, Sydelle Harrison, BS ’16, MPH ’18, works to change the perception among tribal youth that college isn’t for them. To do so, she’s led three two-day tours and can rattle of a handful of individuals who have followed her lead in pursuit of a college degree from Oregon State University.

“Tribal Youth Campus Tours are my way of giving youth like me, who struggle to adapt to the new world of college and life off the reservation after high school, a chance to walk with those who have done and are doing it,” she says

Why is it important to reach Tribal youth?

Our Tribal communities and students are pulled in many directions. Many, like myself, don’t have a large network of college experienced family to look to when transitioning after high school, in whatever direction that might be. We have strong ties to our homelands and traditions, which also create a strong pull to fulfill our duties at home.

As Natives, we have some of the lowest college acceptance and degree earning rates in the nation, and OSU is no exception. To address disparities we need to look to our children to move one step farther than we did in this process. Reaching out directly as a Tribal student, mother and scientist and providing time and attention to our young people will hopefully allow them to explore new ideas. 

What does a tour typically include?

Students from the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians and others participate. The visits are two days with an overnight stay in the dorms or nearby hotel.

The tours typically include a core set of stops around campus and a STEM activity. The last visit included a tour of the athletic facilities by Carlos Garcia ’08, a walking tour of campus led by me, and a lab tour, usually the Sinnhuber Aquatic Research Lab, led by Robert Tanguay.

We host a Native American student panel over pizza, where we introduce ourselves and share our stories of how we got to where we are today. The Office of Admissions and Ecampus also give presentations.

group of high school students on campus tour

Do you know of past tour participants who are now attending Oregon State?

Yes, quite a few! Lyndsi Lewis was a chaperone on the very first tour and she has since transferred and will be entering her senior year in environmental engineering. She led this year’s STEM activity — a zombie apocalypse.

A young lady will be entering OSU’s College of Science on a Ford Family Foundation Scholarship and a young man from the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation will begin this fall.

My niece Melissa Van Pelt and her children have also received a Ford Family Foundation Scholarship and will be moving to Corvallis with her children to begin this fall.

Why did you choose to attend Oregon State?

My mother worked at our Tribal health clinic as the WIC coordinator and grandmother was the first Community Health Representative for our Tribe when the program rolled out of the University of Washington.

I wanted to be like my mom and grandma — helping improve the health of our community — and this was the closest school with a top public health program.

You’re earning your third degree from the College of Public Health and Human Sciences. Tell us more.

I came to OSU directly out of high school in 2001 and earned a dual bachelor’s degree in anthropology and public health in 2016.

I took a leave after my junior year to pursue a professional career in environmental remediation and cultural resource management at the Hanford site in Richland, Washington, before I started again online and returned to campus in 2015.

I rolled into the MPH program in health systems and policy in 2017, earning that degree in 2018, and went directly into the doctoral program in health promotion and health behavior the following fall. I will start my second year of the HPHB doctoral program this September.

What drove you to major in public health at Oregon State?

I began my undergrad in athletic training because athletics were my whole life as a Tribal student from rural eastern Oregon. After taking a few classes and talking with some professors, I ended up switching my major to public health with a concentration in health promotion and health behavior around my sophomore year. I learned about social determinants of health, and that really struck a chord with me having grown up on a reservation.

My aim in pursuing public health is just as much to educate my peers, professors and colleagues at OSU as it is to learn from them. Indigenous Oregon populations have history on our sides to share and work toward a healthy future, for those who are willing to learn.

What advice do you have for future students?

I’m so proud of the great progress stemming from our young people. Start exploring possibilities early. Try new things and meet new people along the way, that’s how you learn what’s out there.

I completely understand college isn’t for some people, but learning that about yourself and working through doubts before you set foot on campus your freshman year, like I did, is so important. 

Sydelle and Lyndsi are trainees in the OSU Superfund’s Community Engagement Core, which is directed by CPHHS Associate Professor Molly Kile.

The Tribal Youth Camps Tours started in 2016 as a partnership between the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation and the Community Engagement Core of the OSU Superfund Research Center. The tours target Native American high school students, who are under-represented in science, technology, engineering, math and biomedical careers. Funding has been provided by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.

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