‘A Once-in-a-Lifetime-Opportunity’

November 17, 2021


Courtesy photo

Even though her nerves were racing, UNM-Taos pre-science, first-year student Sydnie Pino gathers her thoughts and gives an impassioned and informative speech on Indigenous peoples' mental health during COVID-19 to a large crowd attending the American Public Health Association Conference in Denver late last month.

Without a doubt, UNM-Taos pre-science freshman Sydnie Pino was nervous as she stood alone at a podium for the first time in her young life — waiting, for what seemed like an eternity, for the large crowd to settle in and the lights to dim. But her reasons for being there, her passion for health equity, and her dogged determination to nail the presentation loosened her vocal cords and slowed her heart rate. 

“It was a little intimidating,” she confessed.

Pino was one of the Indigenous students who traveled from New Mexico to share their perspectives with public health leaders from across the country at the American Public Health Association (APHA) annual meeting in Denver from Oct. 23-27. Her group included Jules McCabe from the Navajo Nation and Jade Rael from Picuris Pueblo, who is a graduate of Santa Fe Indian School and now attends UCLA. The future healers and health advocates were accompanied by Anthony Fleg, MD, associate professor in The University of New Mexico (UNM) Department of Family & Community Medicine, who helped organize the trip. 

The team presented on the topics of “Indigenous Health During COVID: What We Know, What We Can Learn,” a virtual youth health equity summit, and the Running Medicine program. A film created by team members on mental health challenges arising from the COVID-19 pandemic was included in the APHA Film Festival. This is the largest public health conference in the nation.

Pino presented three times — two in person and one on Zoom. She presented on mental health during COVID and the virtual health equity summit that she and other young leaders put together this past February.  

“It was a huge deal,” Pino said. “A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. We were able to listen in on presentations given by various health professionals from around the world — an experience to remember for sure.”

Different categories were available for the presenters to pick from regarding public health. Pino is most interested in inequities in health. “I want to bring awareness to my Native community of the public health services available to them. Many are not aware,” she explained. 

In her presentations, she discussed social determinants such as ethnicity, social class, environment, and education, all of which affect how people receive healthcare — or don't receive it. 

“Indian health services are available, but sometimes it’s difficult to receive healthcare because of a significant lack of funding,” Pino said.

Pino graduated from the Santa Fe Indian School in 2020. After obtaining her pre-science associate degree at UNM-Taos, she plans on getting a master’s degree in nursing from UNM in Albuquerque. She also serves as secretary for the UNM-Taos Student Government Association.

Her senior honors project in 2020 focused on health equity concerning low-income Native communities. The conference helped her learn more and gain insight into further research. She compares the process to "starting small then branching out."

Easing up on her mission to right the wrongs of health inequity is not an option for Pino. “I’m very passionate about it,” she stated.

Hearing a little bit of background regarding health inequity from Dr. Fleg and from related courses on how this affects minority groups “frustrates me and drives my passion,” said Pino. “Dr. Fleg tells us we are the voices of the world. Just because you’re young doesn’t mean you can’t change the world for the better.” 

Interestingly enough, the healthcare field wasn’t something Pino thought about growing up. During the majority of her childhood, it didn’t cross her mind. “Being a doctor is too hard and everyone wants to be one,” she recalled thinking to herself. 

In Pino’s senior year at Santa Fe Indian School, her counselor made it clear that she needed to decide on a career path right then and there. She wasn’t prepared. Panic set in. She chewed on the question for a moment and surprising herself, she answered, “The medical field.” 

That ended up being the exact right answer. Soon after, Pino took an introduction to health careers class in high school and was immediately interested. She took flight from there. Through that class, Pino became aware of the Healers of Tomorrow (HOT). HOT is an 8-month mentorship program dedicated to exploring health careers, providing college preparation, and developing leadership skills in motivated high school students. It's part of the Native Health Initiative, which Dr. Fleg was instrumental in creating in North Carolina. He brought it with him to New Mexico intending to expand partnerships between health profession students and indigenous communities to address health inequities. She applied to the program and was accepted.

“Sydnie impressed us as someone who was really clear about her vision to become a health professional and was accepted for her senior year of high school,” said Dr. Fleg adding, “She is humble and is very rooted in her Northern New Mexico community and the Indigenous communities of Taos and San Ildefonso Pueblos. When combined with her ability to lead others, this makes Sydnie someone who is going to really make a difference for our state in the years ahead.” 

  • By Scott Gerdes, UNM-Taos Branch Communications and Marketing