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Senior earns third national scholarship in three years

Pre-dental student Merrick McMahon found success at UND through mentorship, scholarships and clear motivations

UND student Merrick McMahon and his mentor Keith Malaterre at the National Scholarship Ceremony in Columbia Hall on Oct. 7, 2019. UND archival image.

Three years. Three national scholarships awarded.

UND senior Merrick McMahon is on a roll, one in which the Indian Health Service scholarship that he received this fall marked his third national scholarship in three years.

Only 25 undergraduate students across the country were selected for the IHS scholarship, and McMahon faced similar odds in receiving Cobell and Udall Scholarships the two years prior.

As importantly, McMahon’s latest scholarship further solidified his career goals of service and dedication to tribal communities.

Since arriving at UND from his hometown of Minot, McMahon’s goal has been to join the Indian Health Service in its mission to provide medical and public health services to more than 2 million Native Americans living in the United States.

“I always knew I wanted to be a doctor,” said McMahon, an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa located around Belcourt, N.D. “And when I came to UND, I knew I wanted to work with indigenous healthcare, mostly because there is a substantial lack of providers, especially specialists.”

Armed with recommendations and a shining academic record, McMahon is poised to finish his biology degree this year and apply to dental school. Specifically, he wants to work for the Indian Health Service as an oral surgeon, a task that first requires getting a DDS or DMD degree.

“I applied for this latest scholarship because I want to make healthcare better in Native American communities,” McMahon said. “Through that, I also want to work on public health efforts that can improve access to healthcare on reservations.”

Informed and motivated by experience

McMahon’s familiarity with the IHS goes back to childhood, from his time spent on the Turtle Mountain reservation with his grandmother.

His grandmother often would talk about how people couldn’t get the help they needed from the federal organization, which operates 26 hospitals and nearly 60 community health centers nationwide, McMahon said.

Moreover, tribal members needing care from a specialist would often have to go to Minot, which is where McMahon would later work as a certified nursing assistant – a job he came back to during his summers away from UND.

So, eventually, McMahon helped take care of people who couldn’t find help from their local provider. And as McMahon was studying at UND in preparation for a dental career, he learned even more about problems with indigenous healthcare.

“There was a patient from the Fort Berthold reservation who came to Minot because there wasn’t enough of an insulin supply,” McMahon said. “He eventually progressed to DKA (diabetic ketoacidosis, a life-threatening complication caused by low blood sugar), and I would take care of a lot of these kinds of patients.”

As those experiences continued to unfold, McMahon became increasingly motivated to pursue his goal, which led him to joining UND’s Indians into Medicine (INMED) program once he got to campus. Notably, INMED – a longstanding effort to help Native American students develop careers in health-related fields – is a program mostly funded through IHS.

McMahon’s CNA experience also prompted him to think bigger than just being a surgeon – in particular, to consider public health advocacy.

“According to the IHS, Native Americans have the highest rate of dental caries compared to all other races in the United States,” he said. “Native Americans also have a lifespan which is 5½ years shorter than every other race. We also have one of the highest rates of diabetes as well as heart issues, and Native Americans generally suffer from a lot of disparities in healthcare, including education about these issues.

“Learning more and more about how communities suffer due to this lack of care has motivated me more and more to succeed in my goals.”

Yee Han Chu, academic support and fellowship opportunities coordinator, has worked with McMahon on his scholarship pursuits since he enrolled in her elective scholarship course during his freshman year. The course, which she had just introduced at the time McMahon enrolled, is meant to prepare undergraduate students interested in applying for national scholarships. UND archival image.

Finding the right people

Despite his high ambitions, McMahon found himself challenged by the transition to college. He was intimidated by the tougher classes and having to manage his time and his finances. He wasn’t sure how he would keep paying to stay in school.

“I struggled greatly that first year,” McMahon remarked. “At first, I didn’t think I could do it.”

But as time went on, he was able to meet people on campus who were impressed by his perseverance and drive, as well as his personality.

Keith Malaterre

One of those people was Keith Malaterre, an American Indian success specialist with UND Student Diversity & Inclusion. Malaterre said that upon meeting the then-freshman, he was taken aback by McMahon’s sense of direction for his education and future professional life.

“Thus far, his education and experiences in education have been outstanding,” Malaterre said. “Along with applying for and receiving some high-level scholarships, Merrick also strives to do his best academically. He has proven himself with his high academic achievements and is a highly motivated student.”

And once McMahon connected with Yee Han Chu, academic support and fellowship opportunities coordinator, through an elective scholarship course, he realized he had a viable pathway to keeping up with tuition.

“Unequivocally, those people helped me build the confidence to get to where I am now,” McMahon said.

Like Malaterre, Chu recognized McMahon for his serious focus regarding his education. Many freshmen change their majors and goals at least a few times, Chu said, but McMahon stood out from the crowd.

Chu, in most cases, guides undergraduate students to scholarships, but she said McMahon ended up being more of the initiator of ideas through their time working together. He had the Cobell Scholarship in mind right away, and he was only interested in applying to scholarships that aligned with serving Native American communities.

“He’s deeply devoted to his community, and he has a really strong sense of service,” Chu said.

Both qualities lend themselves well to scholarship applications that typically rely on letters of recommendation from faculty and multiple, in-depth essay questions.

The fact that McMahon won not just one, but three national scholarships during his undergraduate career is exceptionally rare, said Chu. After earning the Cobell, McMahon made a couple of attempts at the Udall – first earning an honorable mention, then being selected as a scholar under the Native American Health track.

“To my knowledge, he’s UND’s first student to earn a Udall Scholarship for Native American Health,” Chu said. “Then, on top of it, with the IHS Scholarship this year, the odds were simply not in his favor to accomplish that.”

‘Don’t be afraid to try’

According to Kathleen Fredericks, INMED’s student advisor, McMahon may also be the first UND student to go through the INMED program on a pre-dental degree path. Furthermore, it’s exceptional that he earned the IHS Scholarship in the “Preparatory” category, Fredericks said, as most scholarship funding from the IHS goes toward Health Professions Scholarships, which are for students already enrolled in health profession degree programs.

Kathleen Fredericks

Last year, Fredericks hosted a Zoom session where students could meet with a representative from the IHS Scholarship program. McMahon was among those who attended and went to work on his application shortly after.

“At INMED, we try to provide opportunities, line up resources and do whatever we can to help students succeed,” Fredericks told UND Today. “Merrick has been great at capitalizing on those things.”

For McMahon, that confidence was built over time, through mentorship at UND. One of the biggest things he learned, he said, was not to be afraid to ask for help. If not for taking that crucial step, he wouldn’t be in the position he is now – able to finish his degree and have the confidence to write about himself on dental school and other scholarship applications.

“These scholarships have also helped me connect to a lot of people as well as a lot of support,” McMahon said, referring to his mentors in Malaterre and Chu, the network of Udall Scholars and the UND professors who’ve written in support of his scholarship nominations. “I had no idea where to start with any of these scholarships, so my message to other students is, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Don’t be afraid to try.”