Exterior of Nancy Nicholas Hall in the evening, with lamps and windows glowing.
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Partnership benefits Native children and families and provides a memorable learning experience for students

Every year, Dipesh Navsaria, MPH, MSLIS, MD, spends a couple of days at the St. Croix Chippewa’s Tribal Health Center in Northwest Wisconsin serving their youngest children and their families.

He brings a team of medical students and residents to perform — in collaboration with the tribe’s on-site resources — the required checkups of children’s health and well-being so they can be enrolled in the federally funded tribal Head Start preschool program.

This time around — and for the first time in 15 years of the experience — he brought along an undergraduate student from the School of Human Ecology.

Group of people stand under the overhang of the entryway of the Tribal Health Center. Stone columns are on either side of the group. The peaked roof is green with the Center's circular logo.
Students from UW–Madison and medical residents from programs throughout Wisconsin at the Tribal Health Center serving the St. Croix Chippewa of Wisconsin, 2022. Dipesh Navsaria is standing on the far left, Esmeralda Ramirez Sanchez is on the far right.

“I wanted to extend this opportunity to a student who might not otherwise have access to an experience like this and who could really benefit from it,” says Dr. Navsaria who serves as Faculty Outreach Fellow for the Child Development Lab at the School of Human Ecology.

“At the Tribal Health Center, students see firsthand the expected challenges of poverty, rural access issues, and the legacy of generations of racism, oppression, and attempted genocide, but they also see the strengths: loving families, skilled and dedicated personnel, quality physical facilities, and other resources that are carefully tuned to meet local needs — resources that we briefly augment, but certainly not replace,” Navsaria says.

Esmeralda Ramirez Sanchez, a fourth year Human Development and Family Studies student at the School of Human Ecology, applied for the experience because she was interested in immersing herself in an unfamiliar community. In particular, Esmeralda wanted to see how healthcare differs in rural areas of Wisconsin compared to what she knows in Madison.

During the two-day event, Esmeralda observed Dr. Navsaria’s team of physicians conduct physicals, hearing screenings, and dental exams. “I was even able to watch a tooth extraction, which was pretty interesting,” Esmeralda said.

Esmeralda Ramirez Sanchez smiling at the camera and wearing a green top
Esmeralda Ramirez Sanchez

After talking with a social worker who was handing out car seats to families, Esmeralda learned that most of the children coming to the Tribal Health Center lived with their grandparents. She found it eye-opening and heartening that the Tribal Health Center staff personally knew the families and kids who were receiving care.

“Staff members understood the specific struggles — and strengths — of the community and tried their best to get kids and their families the resources they needed,” Esmeralda said. “That was very special for me to witness.”

Esmeralda is grateful for the experience because it broadened her perspective of how healthcare functions in smaller communities. The experience also strengthened her interest in pursuing a career as a social worker for underrepresented populations.

Dr. Navsaria emphasizes this experience is not a one-way transaction of a “donation” of services, but a reciprocal development of trust, mutual respect, and learning from each other, with the shared goal of giving the tribe’s youngest children the best chance for life-long success, a key outcome of high-quality early childhood education anywhere.

“I deeply treasure the relationships I have built with the leadership and staff of the St. Croix Head Start and Health Center over the years,” says Dr. Navsaria. “We have mutual understanding and trust that we are both working toward the best interests of the children and families we serve. This mutual engagement and understanding is, at its heart, an expression of the Wisconsin Idea.”

Dipesh Navsaria standing outside with a tree and building in the background. He is holding an oblong, wooden club with irregular, angled sides. One side ends in a triangular point. There are three silver grommets down the middle and on the sides.
To mark his 15 years of service, a member of the Ho-Chunk tribe who works closely with the St. Croix gave Dr. Navsaria a traditional war club carved out of wood from the President’s Oak on the UW–Madison campus. This notable tree formerly stood adjacent to Nancy Nicholas Hall and the School of Human Ecology. “They had no way of knowing my office is right near that spot, so this is a remarkable coincidence. The wood is ‘returning home’ in a sense,” he says.