Indian Health Service Scholarships Awarded to Three Students in Kansas City University’s College of Dental Medicine

Image Credit: Drew Kimble, 12 Eighty-One Photography

It’s been a year of firsts at Kansas City University (KCU) College of Dental Medicine (CDM), which opened in Joplin in 2023, with 80 students in its first class. Three of those students are recipients of the Indian Health Service’s (IHS) Health Professions scholarship: Haylee Harden, Wyatt Mills, and Jacob Yoder.

“Having three students out of our five Native American students receiving this scholarship is remarkable in and of itself,” said Linda C. Niessen, DMD, MPH, MPP, founding dean of the college. “But having three students who are first-year students in the overall pool of Indian Health Service scholars is really quite a tribute to the candidates’ abilities and their leadership.”

The IHS Health Professions scholarship provides financial aid to students enrolled in an eligible health profession degree program, and who are members of federally recognized American Indian or Alaska Native tribes. After graduation or post-graduate clinical training, these recipients are appointed to an area where they will serve the IHS population in a clinical setting for a minimum of two years.

“We’re very proud of our students,” said Niessen. “These are wonderful students who are really committed to giving back to their community. I’m really pleased that Indian Health Services acknowledges that and recognizes that these are individuals who want to give back to the community, and awarded them scholarships because it will make their dental education much easier. It will help relieve their financial worries.”

Haylee Harden

When Haylee Harden was about 8 years old, she and her best friend were talking about what they were going to be when they grew up. It was decided that they would still be best friends, and that her friend would be an orthodontist and that Harden would be a dentist. As a student in the inaugural class of KCU-CDM, Harden is well on her way to making that childhood declaration a reality.

Harden, a member of the Cherokee Nation, grew up in McAlester, Oklahoma, then attended the University of Oklahoma in Norman, where she studied biology. When applying to dental school, KCU’s program appealed to her because it was close to home and she could be part of the first graduating class. Her experience at KCU has been positive, especially with the faculty and staff. “Being in the first class is kind of special,” she said. The University’s mission—improving the well-being of the communities it serves–also aligns with her value system. “KCU’s focus on community outreach is important to me,” she said. “I feel like it really connects with my values.”

In her downtime, Harden treats herself to a Sunday coffee at 7 Brew, hikes with her dog Cleo at Grand Falls, and explores the area. “Joplin feels so homey,” she said. “I like that it’s the Midwest. I do not leave my house without talking to somebody!”

After graduating from KCU, Harden hopes to be placed in Alaska for her IHS service commitment. But wherever she goes, she says that serving the needs of the American Indian or Alaska Native populations is important. “It’s just like giving back to them,” she said. “Honestly, they’re the people who raised me.” From medical and dental care, to financial support for schooling, the presence of IHS in Harden’s life has made a profound impact on her. “It’s crazy to see how willing they are to help,” she said. “So, I’m like, ‘Well, I can do that, too.’”

Wyatt Mills

Science has always interested Wyatt Mills, but he never knew exactly what he wanted to do with it – until his stepdad, whose own father was a dentist, entered his life. “My stepdad’s goal was to go to dental school, also,” said Mills. “He graduated dental school the same year I graduated high school.” Witnessing his stepdad’s journey first-hand, gave Mills a deep appreciation for what it takes to become a dentist.

After studying biological sciences at Wichita State University, Mills applied to dental schools. KCU was a contender not only because it was relatively close to his family in his hometown of Purcell, Oklahoma, but also because it was new, which meant it would have new equipment, and that was a big attraction for him.

Beginning their very first semester, Mills and his classmates worked with KCU’s state-of-the-art equipment in the simulation clinic. Regarding KCU’s program, Mills said, “They’re taking an approach to the curriculum that’s much different than other schools. We started to practice skills so much earlier than other places. They really are priming us to serve the community.”

Affiliated with the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma tribe, Mills received health care from IHS and learned about Native American educational opportunities through his local school district. Knowing that he could potentially have financial support from his tribe to attain his goal of becoming a dentist was a big motivator for Mills. “That’s what made me realize I could pursue and be successful in dental school,” he said.

Mills is grateful for his IHS scholarship. “I’m thankful for the support and for the opportunity to serve the community when I graduate,” he said. For his post-graduate IHS commitment, Mills hopes to be placed near his hometown, so that he and his wife Ashleigh can be close to family.

Jacob Yoder

While studying biology at the University of Arkansas, Jacob Yoder’s career goals shifted. “I was originally going for osteopathic medicine,” said Yoder. He shadowed his grandfather, a gastroenterologist who graduated from KCU’s College of Osteopathic Medicine in 1967. “It didn’t feel right for me,” he said. “Then I shadowed my hometown dentist. That felt more like home.”

Growing up in Fort Gibson, Oklahoma, which is located in Cherokee Nation, Yoder used IHS services as a member of that tribe. He was also exposed to Cherokee culture and education at school on special days when tribal members visited and introduced the students to skills like making pottery and jewelry, weaving baskets, playing stickball, and even learning the Cherokee language.

Yoder’s Cherokee affiliation also enabled him to apply for the IHS scholarship. Receiving the scholarship has brought a sense of relief to him as he works his way through dental school. “It’s helped me focus on learning and studying, and being the best clinician and practitioner that I can be rather than worrying about the financial burden.

As he nears the completion of his first year at KCU-CDM, he’s found the curriculum to be unlike any other. “They really boil it down to what we need, and what’s going to make us good clinicians and good overall practitioners,” he said. He’s also found the faculty to be supportive. “They really teach us rather than just kind of funnel us through.”

After graduation, Yoder wouldn’t mind staying in the Joplin area for his IHS service commitment. “But I’m open to going wherever I’m needed the most,” he said.

Serving — and Leading — in the Native American Community

In a few years, Harden, Mills, and Yoder will be practitioners in American Indian or Alaska Native communities similar to the ones that have supported them over the years. They’ll provide dental care to populations that are often underserved, and hopefully inspire more young Native Americans to access tribal services to help them achieve their goals. Who knows? Perhaps they will even inspire some of them to become dentists too.

About Kansas City University

Kansas City University, founded in 1916, is a fully accredited, private not-for-profit health sciences university with Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine, Biosciences and a developing College of Dental Medicine. The College of Osteopathic Medicine is the eighth largest medical school in the U.S., the ninth most impactful medical school for primary care for the nation, the tenth most affordable of private medical colleges, and the leading producer of physicians for the State of Missouri. The College of Osteopathic Medicine has two sites strategically located on the University’s campuses in Kansas City and Joplin, Missouri, to address the growing needs of both urban and rural populations. The University offers multiple graduate degrees; a doctor of osteopathic medicine; a doctor of psychology in clinical psychology; a master of arts in bioethics; a master of science in the biomedical sciences; a master of business administration in partnership with Rockhurst University; a new master of public health in partnership with the University of Nebraska Medical Center; and plans to seat the first doctor of dental medicine students in 2023.


Haley Reardon, Manager of Marketing and Communications
Kansas City University

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