The first-ever Western Sydney University Fulbright Scholarship has gone to American Indian pre-med student and human rights activist Victor Lopez-Carmen, Crow Creek Sioux/Yaqui. Lopez-Carmen will use his 10 months in Australia to conduct research on how to improve the experience and well-being of Australian Aboriginal youth transitioning from their traditional communities to boarding schools.
The students, 11 to 13 years old, “are from very remote communities,” explained Lopez-Carmen. “They don’t have access to secondary schooling at home. They have to travel, some of them a very long way, from their traditional communities to boarding schools.” While the youth are not forcibly removed from their homes, the boarding schools are their only option if they want to be educated beyond the primary level. “It’s not much of a choice,” Lopez-Carmen said.
“It can be difficult because they’re entering these boarding schools at very key points in their lives, just starting to enter puberty. A lot of them are at risk of drug use, dangerous sexual behaviors; there are a lot of different risks. A lot of them don’t end up finishing because of how difficult it is, being in an entirely new place at such a formative age. A lot of them drop out. They fail, get suspended and return to their traditional communities. For a lot of them there’s just a point where they stop pursuing an education,” he said.
The Australian government is trying to make the transition process more culturally sensitive by providing some cultural support for students in the boarding schools and some mentorship from indigenous students who’ve already gone through the process, explained Lopez-Carmen. He will be looking at whether the interventions that have been put in place are effective.
The scholarship is intended to foster research of interest to both Australia and the United States, and the American Indian boarding school experience makes this a perfect topic, as Lopez-Carmen knows from his own family’s experience. His grandmothers and great-grandmothers on both sides were removed from their homes to attend boarding schools back when students were not allowed to speak their Native languages there, and some of the ongoing consequences of that historical trauma are similar to the consequences for Aboriginal students today.
For example, Australian Aboriginal youth suffer the highest suicide rate in Australia and the second highest in the world, and American Indian youth have the highest suicide rate in the U.S., said Lopez-Carmen. “I can take back the things I learn in this project to my home communities because we also deal with a lot of issues in terms of education, mental and cultural health, suicide, access to health services and on and on,” he said.
Lopez-Carmen, 22, graduated from Ithaca College in May, which gives him seven or eight months to prepare before his research project begins in January. He had already been in touch with professors at Western Sydney University and a team of researchers there to do background work, and he has been making contact with the traditional communities and boarding schools where he will interview students and elders and administer standardized tests that measure students’ resilience and well-being.
When the Fulbright is finished, he plans on going to medical school, a goal for which he has been preparing ever since he was a youngster. He comes from a family of healers and activists and was exposed to human rights work from an early age. That has influenced how he approaches the task of becoming a doctor who will serve indigenous communities.
“A lot of people wanting to become doctors just focus on the science,” he said. “But for me, since I want to help indigenous people, I have to focus on many factors. I have to have the training in physiology and I’ve been working on that, the basic science. But since indigenous people are oppressed, the social factors have at least an equal if not a greater effect on our health. Poverty, racism, colonization, food security, all of these things have an impact.
“I want to be type of doctor who is not only able to heal my patients physiologically, but I also want to help lift up the whole community, spiritually, culturally and politically and empower my community because that also will improve our health in the long run.”