When Chris Lopez was in sixth grade, his teacher told him something that stuck with him -- and that he would later disprove: "You're never going to succeed in life."
"My self-esteem really broke," Lopez, now a second-year student at the Stanford School of Medicine, said. "As long as I could remember, I was falling behind the rest of the class. I saw the other students do better on tests and get rewarded for their behavior. I went along with the idea of being a failure for years."
Lopez is a Costanoan Rumsen Carmel Tribe member and a leader in the Stanford American Indigenous Medical Students (SAIMS) group. He advocates for the health of Native American, Indigenous and Alaska Native communities -- and, on a more personal note, for students who don't believe they can make the cut.
It's not uncommon that Indigenous students don't receive the educational attention and inspiration that's required for them to succeed, he said. His goal is to offer a supportive environment for fellow Indigenous students at the medical school. In doing so, he often tells the story of his own path.
Lopez, who was born and raised in Monrovia, California, recalls the first teacher, Mr. Russell, to encourage and inspire him. "He took time to sit with me one on one, tutor me and relate his life to my upbringing. What I really needed was a sense of hope and belonging."
Around his senior year, Lopez was diagnosed with an audio and visual processing disorder, which allowed him to seek out and obtain new accommodations that bolstered his academic performance. He was accepted to UC Davis, where he participated in programs to gain research experience and increase the number of underrepresented, disadvantaged and disabled students poised for a career in research.
"You need to give equitable educational resources to these students," Lopez said. "They have the potential; they just need to be nurtured. For hundreds of years, Indigenous communities have been fighting for a place and sense of belonging."
At a college tabling event, he saw a booth with advertisements for Stanford Medicine's medical program, and for the first time, he considered applying.
Close to the heart
Lopez was inspired to pursue medicine after witnessing a sick relative, who was a member of the Costanoan Rumsen Carmel Tribe, succumb to their disease.
Indigenous people, particularly those who live on reservations, often experience higher rates of health problems such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease and chronic liver disease and cirrhosis, Lopez said. Generally, these conditions stem from or are exacerbated by complex factors like discrimination in health care and higher poverty rates.
"I hope to prevent people from succumbing to certain health conditions and want to make sure that they have longer, better lives," Lopez said. "When I'm doing outreach, I think about my uncle and how he died after having difficulties receiving health care, and it inspires me to work harder."
Now at Stanford Medicine, Lopez advocates for students in the Natives in Medicine group, which partners with SAIMS. The group and Lopez work with the Office of Diversity in Medical Education on ways to recruit Indigenous college students who are interested in a medical career. As part of that effort, Lopez chaired the 2022 American Indians Accessing Health Profession Workshop, which is a three-day program that encourages young Native students to pursue a career in medicine. He works with the Association of American Medical Colleges to try and bring awareness to Native health care by writing articles telling his own story. He's also in regular communication with the Ohlone Sisters -- the Costanoan Rumsen Carmel are a group of the larger Ohlone tribe -- who travel around California, bear witness to their tribal history, giving blessings and offering land recognition to spread awareness about Indigenous culture.
Lopez is the only Costanoan Rumsen Carmel Tribe member he is aware of who lives on Ohlone land, on which Stanford University is located. He feels compelled to create change, given his position as the sole member of his tribe on ancestral land. He also says he feels his Indigenous identity has grown since joining Stanford Medicine and becoming a voice in the community.
"I can become a role model given my placement at Stanford," Lopez said. "Carving out a path for Stanford undergraduates may, in itself, be more impactful than any individual speaking engagement I ever do."
It's a start, he said. "But medical institutions as a whole need to continue to provide resources for growing the population of Native health care professionals and be more devoted to Native health care," he said. "Right now, the lack of quality care is crushing these communities and preventing them from flourishing as they deserve to."
Top photo: Desiree Munoz (left), Chris Lopez (center), Carla Marie (right)
Photo courtesy of Chris Lopez