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Envisioning the Future One Step at a Time

Cassandra Rendon DC’09, MPH’17, MED’18 (Photo by Jon Gilbert Fox)

The tiny Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indian Reservation, in northeastern North Dakota near the Canadian border, is among the most densely populated reservations—per square mile—in the United States. Belcourt, its main city, is the reservation’s hub. It is there, in the austere beauty and solitude of woodlands, grasslands, and lakes, that Cassandra Rendon DC’09, MPH’17, MED’18, spent her childhood.

And it is here at Geisel School of Medicine in New Hampshire’s forests and mountains, where Rendon remains connected to her Native roots while working toward her goal of working with Indian Health Services on policy change to shore-up disparities in Indian health.

“I came to Dartmouth because of its strong Native American program, and I returned here for medical school because of the opportunities to work with the Native population,” she says.

Rendon has worked tirelessly to establish Indian Health Service sites for third-year Geisel students completing family medicine clerkships and who are interested in Native heath, including one on her home reservation for which she was the pilot student—more students will participate this year. As a first-year medical student she was a site leader for Geisel’s spring break Indian Health Service Trip to Minnesota where students learned more about Native American culture and Native health issues while providing service to the communities they visited. And she continues to mentor Native American and minority Dartmouth undergraduates interested in pursuing careers in medicine.

“This past year I exceeded my own expectations of my academic performance, professionalism, and leadership,” Rendon says. Collaborating with other Native medical students, she took the lead in establishing a memorial scholarship—The Kelsie Gleason Creative Passion Scholarship—in memory of her close friend and Native classmate, Kelsie Gleason ’16, who died during her second year of medical school.

The scholarship, offered through the Association of Native American Medical Students (ANAMS), recognizes the creative passions its members pursue outside the field of medicine. Gleason, for instance, volunteered with High Horses Therapeutic Riding Program in Norwich, VT, which provides equine experiences for adults and children with varying abilities and needs.

Rendon’s hard work and dedication was recognized during the 45th Annual Association of American Indian Physicians Conference held in August. Active in ANAMS, she was elected by her fellow Native medical students to serve as president of the national executive board for the upcoming year—she also received the John T. Wolf, MD, Outstanding Native American Medical Student Scholarship Award. Wolf, a Muskogee Creek Indian, was a 1976 graduate of Dartmouth’s medical school.

Given to one medical student annually, the Wolf Award recognizes those who achieved exceptional work in a course or research, who have demonstrated professionalism and leadership in their community or school, and who have contributed to Native American health.

Rendon says it was an honor to be nominated by fellow Native students for both the award and the ANAMS presidency, and to be recognized for her leadership qualities. “I accepted and dedicated the award to my late friend and classmate Kelsie Gleason, who was an outstanding Native medical student,” she adds. “Kelsie continues to inspire me, and many others, to work hard for myself and for my Native people.”

Another achievable goal Rendon has set for herself, in addition to completing both her master’s degree in public health and her medical degree, is establishing a Geisel ANAMS chapter this year—she says being a Native medical student isn’t a requirement for membership, but an interest in Native health is.

“I’ve been working hard, but there is more work to do. All of this is a reminder to be grateful for the blessings I have in my life and for my family and friends who have supported me on my journey into medicine,” Rendon says.

“As I go on, my responsibility as a doctor will be first and foremost to take care of my patients, but also to always be someone who makes the path better for the people coming behind me—for other Natives who are going to be students here, or anywhere, I want things to be better for them.”