Shelby Snyder: Pioneering Paths in Indigenous Healthcare, Breaking Barriers in Medicine

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“Lean into your community, culture, and identity to keep you grounded, and remember that your path and perspective are valid. Take time to reflect on why you want to go to medical school and what values or skills you’ll carry in that process.”

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Shelby Snyder headshot
A headshot of Shelby Snyder.

Med School: University of Washington School of Medicine
Expected Graduation Year: 2026
College & Major: Dartmouth College, BA, Biology & Native American Studies, 2021

Learn more about:


  • Shelby is a member of the Navajo Nation and Southern Ute descent. Her father is a urologist who inspired her to explore her path towards medicine.
  • She was selected for the inaugural Pathways to Medicine Scholars program during her first year at Dartmouth College, serving as a facilitator, peer mentor, and lead intern for three years. This leadership program brings together students from underrepresented backgrounds in medicine to build community, learn about social determinants of health and health equity, and meet with experts and mentors.
  • Before her senior year of high school, Shelby participated in the College Horizons college preparation program. The program supports the higher education of Native American students by providing college and graduate admissions workshops.
  • In 2021, Shelby was a recipient of the Exemplary Devotion Award, recognizing her efforts in community building and volunteer service to the Native American community at Dartmouth. 


Shelby Snyder’s journey to medical school is not just a story of academic achievement; it’s a narrative woven with threads of resilience, community, and unwavering commitment to her Indigenous heritage. From her early years at Dartmouth College to medical school at the University of Washington School of Medicine (UWSOM), Shelby continuously developed her leadership skills to advocate for underrepresented communities and within Indigenous healthcare.  

A Tribal member of the Navajo Nation, Shelby’s passion for medicine began during the summer before her senior year of high school after participating in the College Horizons college preparation program. This program aims to assist Native American, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian high school sophomores and juniors navigating the college application and admissions process while exploring their college options. Shelby found herself drawn to pathway programs designed to help Indigenous and underrepresented students, saying, “…I consider myself to be a product of pathway programs. Each program [I participated in] was made for Indigenous or underrepresented students and facilitated connection and community building. I found these programs to be grounding and vital in creating space for Indigenous identities and lived experiences.” 

After her first year at Dartmouth College, Shelby seized every opportunity to immerse herself in healthcare-related experiences. From the Summer Health Professions Education Program, which she discovered from her pre-health mentor (shared via social media) at the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine, to the Native Americans into Medicine program (NAM) at the University of Minnesota Duluth Medical School, each experience shaped her vision of becoming a healthcare provider. 

“In the NAM program, I gained a greater understanding of Indigenous research ethics, community-based participatory research, and data sovereignty,” she shared. “During my senior year of college, I also participated in the Great Lakes Native American Applicant Workshop,” where Indigenous voices were amplified and knowledge was shared about the medical school application process. Ultimately, these experiences shaped Shelby’s vision of herself as a future Indigenous healthcare provider. 

Being a part of these programs benefited Shelby well beyond just academic preparation. They became spaces that held the stories, concerns, and struggles of diverse backgrounds. They became the driving force that kept her motivated on the challenging path to medical school. 

“I recommend these programs to any Indigenous, underrepresented pre-health folks, --if not a pathway program, I encourage all to stay connected to community and find sources of strength and balance that will benefit your holistic health,” she suggests.

Shelby Snyder and her family at the 2023 BAAITS Powwow in San Francisco, CA.
Shelby Snyder and her family at the 2023 BAAITS Powwow in San Francisco, CA.

During Shelby’s first year of college, she met regularly with her pre-health advisor, Sarah Berger, assistant dean of pre-health advising at Dartmouth College. As the lead student intern of the Pathways to Medicine Scholars program, Shelby was able to give input and collaborate with Ms. Berger on the program, which is designed to incorporate and expose pre-health students to medicine, social determinants of health, and health equity, through participation in workshops, peer exchanges, community building, and events with URiM experts in their fields. “[Sarah] believed in me and helped me foster my passions. We met several times during the application process. In particular, she helped me with interview preparation and validated my experiences, which improved my confidence immensely. Even now, she remains a great support and validator,” said Shelby.

According to Ms. Berger, Shelby grew as a facilitator and leader in the Pathways programming and, as a pre-health peer mentor. She shared that Shelby “held a vision for what we could do within our Pathways Scholars cohort to uplift the group.  Building a term-long curriculum together was a joy. She brought great ideas to the table and was always open to reaching out to potential guest speakers and experts who might contribute to the program.”

At the end of Shelby’s sophomore year, she connected with Dr. Zaneta Thayer, an anthropology professor at Dartmouth College. Shelby was inspired by a presentation she made on epigenetics to the Pathways to Medicine Scholar cohort, saying, “she helped me develop research plans that focused on evaluating resilience, specifically, the role of powwow dancing as a physical and cultural health intervention for urban Native youth.”

Shelby’s passion to pursue medicine is also rooted in her Diné (Navajo) identity. She draws strength from her clans, ties to kinship, and participation in Powwow dancing. As the co-chair of the Dartmouth Powwow, Shelby explains that dance is not just a rhythmic expression but a source of prayer, healing, empowerment, and a testament to Indigenous resilience. 

"Powwows have grounded me in who I am as an Indigenous person. I have been dancing since I could walk and carry many cultural teachings from the dance circle with me.” " said Shelby.

Growing up with a father who is a Diné physician, Shelby witnessed her father’s commitment to community health outside clinical walls and was fueled by the desire to follow in his footsteps. “Specifically, I had the honor and privilege of seeing my father connect with community members at powwows and other cultural gatherings. No matter where we were, he became a resource for our community members, made space for their concerns, and centered traditional Indigenous practices while doing so.” Whether at cultural gatherings or dances, Shelby learned the importance of culturally appropriate care, inspired by the richness of Indigenous ceremonies. 

Shelby’s goal is to be a provider and support Indigenous people in their health journeys and advocate for culturally appropriate spaces for healing and health.

“I am currently an Indian Health Service (IHS) Scholarship recipient, which commits me to work at an IHS facility after completing residency. I also have an interest in academic medicine and plan to continue exploring ways to uplift Indigenous students interested in the health professions. Whether on my reservation or in an urban setting, I look forward to serving Indigenous people and adding to the representation of Indigenous people in medicine.”

How Shelby Addressed Deficits or Concerns in Her Application

Navigating the complexities of the medical school application process was not without its challenges for Shelby. Moments of self-doubt crept in, particularly when it came to her MCAT score and some academic setbacks she experienced.

“I got a C+ in my first organic chemistry course. It was a learning curve in my academic and personal life. However, I used it as a growth opportunity to influence my learning moving forward,” said Shelby. “I utilized school tutors and participated in group sessions to learn from my peers. I also met with a counselor at school to talk about my mental health. It can be an isolating experience, but reaching out to others and remaining present and active with a desire to grow is rewarding.”

Shelby and Prehealth Advisor Sarah Berger at graduation June 2021
Shelby Snyder and Prehealth Advisor Sarah Berger at graduation in June 2021.

Finding mentors also proved to be a challenge, but the support she received once she found mentors like Ms. Berger and Dr. Thayer, helped give her validation and nurture her passions. Ms. Berger shared, “Shelby was very proactive. She started meeting with me during her first year at Dartmouth. We talked about course selection and planned out her prehealth journey ahead. We met throughout her four years and then again, as she was applying during her gap year throughout the application process.” 

“Throughout the time of working on her application, I so appreciated how Shelby stayed true to the message and story she wanted to convey: one that described her preparation for medical school but was exceptionally authentic in describing the depth of her background within her Native/Indigenous community and her commitment to serving Indigenous/Native communities and other marginalized communities.”

Shelby’s application journey emphasized her volunteer and medically related experiences and also showcased her leadership roles in student groups and pre-health organizations. Her involvement as the co-chair for the Dartmouth Powwow and participation in internships with organizations like the Johns Hopkins Center for Indigenous Health highlighted her commitment to serving Indigenous communities.

“I had some research experience, but no publications, and that was fine. I was still able to speak to my takeaways and things I learned,” Shelby emphasized. 

Shelby advises that applicants applying to medical school believe in themselves and trust in their experiences, saying, “I had a surprising amount of self-doubt during my application cycle. I found myself comparing my experiences to others when at the end of the day, my experiences have informed who I am as a Diné, Indigenous woman and how I want to serve my community. I also encourage folks to send emails and connect with mentors at presentations or resource fairs. It can be daunting, but reaching out and connecting with people can be rewarding and lead to invaluable mentorship.”

University of Washington School of Medicine on Why They Chose Shelby

Although Shelby was an out-of-region applicant, the University of Washington School of Medicine (a five-state regional medical school) knew Shelby was drawn to their unique focus on Indigenous health and its supportive structure for students. Her alignment with UWSOM’s mission, coupled with her extensive service to underserved populations, made her a great candidate.

Dr. LeeAnna Muzquiz, associate dean for admissions at UWSOM, noted Shelby’s outstanding advocacy and leadership skills, as well as her ability to reflect on her experiences and articulate her commitment to service, saying, “Shelby demonstrated strong alignment with the mission of UWSOM in her career goals and preparation for medicine. One committee member commented that she ‘lived her service’ demonstrating a commitment to service to others.” 

She continued, sharing that Shelby’s “significant service to underserved populations, particularly American Indian/Alaska Native (AI/AN) communities in multiple spaces” also resonated with the school. “She also served as a peer mentor and participated in activities where she advocated for increased representation of AI/AN people in medicine.”

Furthermore, Dr. Muzquiz noted that the committee appreciated how she comprehensively shared details about her clinical experiences on her application. She shared, “Shelby was able to effectively reflect on her experiences and how they prepared her for medical school and ultimately to be a physician. She expressed her commitment to being of service to others in multiple ways – as a health care professional, community member, and dancer…Shelby has continued to be a strong advocate for building a stronger community and support for the AI/AN medical student at UWSOM, much like she had done at her undergraduate institution,” said Dr. Muzquiz.

Dr. Muzquiz shared that even today, Shelby “continues to build on her service orientation by volunteering in the mentorship of AI/AN and underrepresented premed students and healthcare ecosystem-building activities. She has become a leader in her class and uses her skills as a researcher by participating in a Rural/Underserved Opportunity Program 4-week rotation where she conducted a community health project with the Seattle Indian Health Board.”

As Shelby continues her journey through medical school, her story serves as an inspiration to aspiring healthcare professionals from underrepresented backgrounds. With each step she takes, Shelby Synder reaffirms the importance of staying true to one’s roots, embracing challenges as opportunities for growth, and advocating for the representation and well-being of underrepresented communities in healthcare.

Shelby's Strongest Competencies

Learn more about the Premed Competencies for Entering Medical Students.

Professional Competencies

  • Service Orientation
    • Exemplary Devotion Award, desire to pursue medicine is related to serving the Indigenous community, advisor and admissions officer all speak about her commitment to serving the underserved.
  • Commitment to Learning and Growth
    • Overcoming the C+ by seeking out tutors/mentors, creating and implementing a vision for the Pathways Scholar program.
  • Cultural Awareness
    • Her research experiences (e.g. the role of powwow dancing as a physical and cultural health intervention for urban Native youth) and her discussion about research ethics ("In the NAM program, I gained a greater understanding of Indigenous research ethics, community-based participatory research, and data sovereignty") highlight the importance of understanding the cultural context of providing health care/doing research in Indigenous communities.
  • Teamwork and Collaboration
    • Her leadership experience and role as a facilitator/intern in a leadership program, also this line “She brought great ideas to the table and was always open to reaching out to potential guest speakers and experts who might contribute to the program.”
  • Resilience and Adaptability
    • Seeking out a counselor to discuss her mental health when she received a C +.
  • Oral Communication
    • Her role as a facilitator and mentor would require oral communication skills. 
  • Interpersonal Skills
    • Serving as a leader and mentor requires strong interpersonal skills.

Thinking & Reasoning Competencies

  • Scientific Inquiry
    • Her research experiences (I had some research experience, but no publications and that was fine. I was still able to speak to my takeaways and things I learned,” Shelby emphasized.

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