UNM School of Public Administration (SPA) graduate student Sharilyn Roanhorse is the true model of a key idea: never stop learning.

Roanhorse was just chosen for the incredibly prestigious, competitive American Hospital Association (AHA) Institute for Diversity and Health Equity's Summer Enrichment Program (SEP.) It’s a big title, and a big deal. 

"This internship is giving me the prime opportunity to explore healthcare from the angle of hospital and health systems administration and operations,” Roanhorse said.  “I will be completing my Master of Health Administration (MHA) this year and the internship experience will play a critical role in guiding my future career decisions. I am studying and observing with the goal of identifying best practices and tools that can be useful in New Mexico.”

She is spending the summer at Lucille Packard Children's Hospital, part of the leading  Stanford University Medical Center. The nationally ranked, Level 1 pediatric trauma hospital, is providing Roanhorse with experiential learning and mentorship opportunities for 10 weeks in Palo Alto, California. She owes a lot of it to her experience at UNM so far.

Sharilyn at hospital
Sharilyn Roanhorse

“The MHA program has improved my knowledge and skill set in the areas of leadership, health information technology, ethics, healthcare finance, and healthcare quality. In addition to the coursework, my professors provided me with individualized support and resources to prepare me for a future in healthcare administration,” Roanhorse said. “What I have learned at UNM will further support my career goal to improve services using new ideas and strategies to help address the healthcare needs of New Mexico’s diverse populations and communities.” 

Before Roanhorse began her MHA at SPA, she spent over two decades serving Native Americans through various administrative roles in New Mexico. That was where she found her passion for not only helping tribes across the state, but especially, disabled children, adults, and elderly populations. 

“My interest began with my passion to improve health care services for Native Americans. My lifelong goal was to attain a graduate degree in healthcare administration and work in a direct care setting,” she said. “My MHA from UNM will support my future professional goal to secure a leadership position at a New Mexico healthcare organization so that I can continue improving services for underserved populations and supporting health equity.”

Once she began that journey at UNM, Roanhorse began to connect with New Mexico Healthcare Executives and the American College of Healthcare Executives, while taking on the helm of Vice President of the Student Association of Healthcare Administrators (SAHA.) After a semester-long application process, essays and interviews, the SEP and Stanford chose Roanhorse to learn with them, and improve chances for meaningful health equity in communities.

“The AHA and Lucille Packard Children's could not have made a better choice than to invest in Sharilyn Roanhorse. Her work experience, her commitment and passion to improve health care access and quality for Native Americans in New Mexico and more broadly, and her approach to life make her a top choice for the AHA summer enrichment program,” SPA Associate Professor and MHA Practicum Coordinator Kate Cartwright said. “While I have no doubt that she will be learning as much as she can from the experience, I also believe that Lucille Packard Children's will be stronger for having her as part of their team, even briefly.” 

Cartwright says aside from Roanhorse learning critical skills, she is gaining even more critical knowledge about the challenges facing all communities, especially New Mexico.

"When UNM students have the opportunity to participate in national programs, they are able to learn from national leaders about emerging challenges and approaches in health care leadership. They are also able to identify what approaches may be impactful and effective for health care organizations here in New Mexico,” Cartwright said.

Roanhorse is interacting with senior-level executives from across the health system, gaining a broad understanding of management operations and issues and paying special attention to  processes for collecting race/ethnicity data of newborns. In addition to her other duties and research, she’s meeting with hospital workers, reviewing workflows and observing employee and patient interactions.

“My goal is to leave Stanford with valuable information that will help sustain their quality improvement efforts to capture newborn race/ethnicity data.  I am excited to be helping Stanford to improve processes, with the goal to target disparities such as low infant birth weight and teen births,” she said.

Roanhorse is also laying the stepping stones for future health administrators, who may come from backgrounds like her.

“I want to help fill the need to increase representation and inclusion of diverse leaders in healthcare management. This is important because studies suggest diversity can enhance the quality of patient care, improve community relations, and affect patient health status,” she said.

Still, after all of this work, you can expect Roanhorse to keep striving to better the health of Native populations.

“While my primary interest is to improve services for Native American patients and their communities, I am committed to help improve healthcare delivery across all underserved populations in New Mexico,” she said. “This requires learning from and gaining experience from organizations and healthcare systems and applying best practices, concepts, and strategies. All healthcare organizations need to have the capacity to deliver culturally competent care to achieve the best patient outcomes.”

It’s something Cartwright and all of SPA supports, well after Roanhorse graduates.

“While health care administration and hospital leadership across the country has made improvements in diversity efforts, too often health care systems and hospital leaders do not reflect the communities of patients they serve,” Cartwright said. “Diversity in leadership improves the likelihood that the conversations and commitments at the top of organizations will be inclusive and comprehensive which improves the chances for meaningful health equity for patients and communities.”

“This is what motivates my interest in healthcare administration and my journey to gain the education and experience to work transversely within and outside the Indian healthcare delivery system,” Roanhorse said.