Meet FLC Water Alum Keana Kaleikini!
Public Health, 2016
By: Benjamin Brewer, FLC Class of 2022, Philosophy
Advanced Degrees: Johns Hopkins University, MS in Public Health
- Epidemiologist - San Juan Public Health
- Associate Director/Chair - Collective Medicine
- Environmental Scientist - New Mexico Environment Department
Tribal Affiliation: Navajo (Diné) Nation, Native Hawaiian
- Kaleikini is part of an Indigenous podcast produced by Johns Hopkins University.
- Kaleikini is also starting an early childhood Navajo education program to immerse Navajo youth in their language and culture.
- Kaleikini’s grandparents grew up without running water.
“When I decided to go back to college, I knew I wanted to go to medical school or into public health because of what I saw in my community growing up. I witnessed a lot of chronic health disparities, and I realized when I got into college that environmentally caused diseases go hand in hand with what we consider ‘behavior health’ induced diseases, and so that feeds into my environmental advocacy.”
Keana Kaleikini (Public Health, ‘16), a Fort Lewis College alumna, is fighting on the front lines of southwest water issues. As Chair of the Board of Directors and Development Director of Collective Medicine, a nonprofit mutual aid program for Indigenous communities, Kaleikini, a Native Hawaiian and a member of the Navajo (Diné) Nation, works to serve those communities in the southwest and beyond.
“I never planned this,” Kaleikini says. “Because of my degree, which is a Master of Science in Public Health, I thought I was going to go straight into research. But being able to grow this nonprofit based on our own experiences into this vision that we have built — it’s been a gift.”
Kaleikini has been working to help build a specialized branch of Collective Medicine called Water Warriors United, which seeks to provide water “to the most vulnerable on the Navajo Nation during the [COVID-19] pandemic.” Indeed, one of the most pressing water issues facing the Navajo Nation is water accessibility, with one in three households on the reservation lacking access to running water. Since May of 2020, Water Warriors United has delivered 250,000 gallons of water to over 20 Native communities.
For Kaleikini, her work with the Water Warriors United has only been a piece of her already prolific career which also includes her work as an epidemiologist for San Juan County in Utah, and as an environmental scientist for the state of New Mexico on the COVID-19 response team.
Kaleikini’s qualities of tenacity and diligence are unimpeachable, and she was highly appreciative of the role of Fort Lewis College in helping her bring those to bear as a scientist and community organizer.
“I couldn’t have done it without FLC,” she says. “They really embrace non-traditional students. I was a non-traditional student myself, and in my junior year I had a baby. Everyone was so supportive, and beyond that the school attracts prestigious professors as well.”
After graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in Public Health in 2016, Kaleikini went on to earn her Master’s degree from Johns Hopkins in 2020. Pursuing a postgraduate degree, Kaleikini notes, opened up opportunities for her career to grow, and the programs at FLC were instrumental in making that happen.
“Meeting with your mentors, internships, networking, going to conferences, are all important extracurricular activities that undergrads should consider doing,” said Kaleikini. “[Because] unfortunately, it’s not just the degree that makes you qualified.”
As a Native woman, Kaleikini is part of the demographic that is least likely to attain higher education because of systemic barriers and racism.
“I grew up on the reservation and was extremely poor, and I didn’t think I was going to college,” she recalls. “I found that when I was starting my professional career that my voice didn’t carry as far. There are many of those systemic things that people don’t consider.”
In light of this, Kaleikini’s journey serves as a model for prospective graduate students from Fort Lewis College — an institution that serves approximately 1,100 Indigenous scholars each semester. For those considering a similar academic path to graduate school, Kaleikini wants those students to be mindful of the many avenues they can take to get there.
“I think a lot of students feel hindered by this pressure to be on this specific path of going straight to graduate school,” she says. “Don’t be intimidated by it, this American westernized education system, because there is no set path. I hope I can be evidence of that.”