American Indian & Alaska Native Heritage Month: Sara Lolar on Research, Mentorship & the Importance of Representation

Sara Lolar, MS, PA-C

Sara Lolar, MS, PA-C, assistant professor of Physician Assistant Studies at Wayne State University in Detroit, MI, has had a momentous couple of years. In addition to being awarded the Don Pedersen Research Grant in 2019, Sara also won PAEA’s New Faculty Award for Professional Excellence in 2020. We recently spoke with Sara about her heritage, the importance of visibility and mentorship for Native peoples, and her research and PA education experience.

What brought you to where you are today?

I’m an urban Native from the Penobscot Nation in northern Maine. Our reservation is called Indian Island. I was not raised there, but most of my family live there. The Penobscot Nation is part of the Wabanaki Confederacy, which is made up of four different nations. It means “People at the Dawn” because we are the first in the nation to see the dawn rise. We are the oldest documented continuously operating government in North America — a good claim to fame! Our earliest recorded contact with Europeans was in 1524, so we’ve been around for a long time. There are a little over 2,300 members scattered around the world, but the majority live in Maine.

I’d like to remind anyone reading my story that my journey is very personal – it doesn’t speak for all people or all Natives. I’m also not a stereotype. Many people think that all Natives live on a reservation, wear feathers and beads, and live in teepees. But when you meet Natives, you find that everyone’s journey is unique and personal.

My journey to PA education is very similar to many people. I had a long and winding course of life and eventually found my way into healthcare. After a long clinical career as a PA, education seemed a natural next step. My Mom is a teacher and she showed me the impact you can have as an educator.

Penobscot Nation Reservation, Indian Island
Penobscot Nation Tribal Sign

Tell us about the importance of visibility for Native people in the PA profession.

I strongly believe in the power of visibility and representation. We should be reaching out to our youth in high school and middle school, giving them positive representation and positive role models. Native youth need to know that it’s possible to go into all kinds of health professions; they can be doctors, nurses, and PAs. Every community has its role models; it’s just a matter of giving those role models a platform and getting that message to people when they most need it.

How have role models impacted you throughout your journey?

My family has doctors, pharmacists, teachers, and judges. I even have two Indian chiefs in my family! That has been the difference for me in my life and career. It has given me the ability to move beyond obstacles and barriers. I not only had role models; I also always had a community of my elders and my tribe making it clear that they would support me and my goals.

Speaking of role models, if you could say anything to your younger self, what would you say?

It might sound cliché, but I would say, “Don’t give up. Life is hard, and it will throw you challenges and barriers. It’s easy to lose your way. Seek out individuals that you admire and who inspire you.” For me, I had a grandmother who was a force to be reckoned with. She was the first female Native American representative of the Maine state legislature. She was a community leader, but she also had a lot of enemies because she stood up for what she believed in. I also have a cousin who is a doctor, and she was a significant role model for me. She bought me my first stethoscope. So, what did I do when my cousin got into medical school? I bought her a stethoscope.

Remembering where you came from and who came before you is very important, as is seeking leadership and mentorship. Find individuals you can be inspired by and have walked in a path that you can follow.

What advice would you give to Native students who are looking for support and mentorship?

Go back to your tribe and to your people to find support to navigate what you’re facing. There are also a lot of organizations that you can seek out. For example, Wayne State has a Native American Student Association. I would also encourage you to find other underrepresented students and faculty who have faced similar struggles.

Can you tell us about your Don Pedersen project?

I love talking about my Don Pedersen Grant! As a new PA faculty member, you’re charged with doing so much. I was trying to learn to teach, doing service learning all the while trying to figure out how to do research. I thought, “How am I going to do this?” I knew I couldn’t be the only one struggling to figure this out. That’s what led me to this question: why is it so hard for PAs to do research? The title of the project is “Barriers to research: a national survey of PA faculty.” We discovered two main barriers. The first is lack of interest. PAs go into the profession to practice medicine and we are secondly educators. We go into education because we love teaching and the excitement of our students. Research is just not in our ethos.

Another problem is the lack of mentorship. We’re such a small profession, and in all reality, we’re a new profession. There is an ambivalence towards mentorship, and many early researchers struggle with the ability to find mentors.

How can PAs and PA educators overcome these barriers?

We put pressure on new PA faculty to become research experts overnight, and it’s incredibly stressful. We need to meet people where they are and focus on advancing them one step higher. To do that, we need to start small. I can imagine workshops like “Research 101” where we take people at an intro basic level and give them the tools they need. Beyond that, PAEA is an excellent resource. I reached out to the research team at PAEA during my Don Pedersen Grant application, and they connected me up with a very supportive mentor and our relationship has been fruitful.

What does a safe and equitable environment look or feel like to you?

I struggle with this because Natives are generally the invisible minority. When I walk into a room, most people don’t know that I am an underrepresented minority whose parents and family live on a reservation. So, you get an imposter feeling when you walk into meetings about inclusion and diversity. On the other hand, I sometimes get the “I don’t know what you are” sort of response, like, “I know you aren’t white, but what are you?” which is problematic in and of itself. There’s a feeling of invisibility and not belonging anywhere.

I’m one of two Native American PA educators identified in the recent PAEA faculty survey, and the PA profession is made up of only 0.4% American Indian and Alaska Natives according to the recent AAPA survey. There is a constant struggle– especially in urban Natives – to feel like you belong and like you deserve to be represented.

What do you want others to know about your experiences?

There are 2.1 million documented Native Americans and 574 federally recognized tribes. There are differences in our cultures, ethnicity, and languages. All tribes and all reservations are different, much like neighborhoods are different. There are disparities among tribes, with some having a lot of resources and others not having running water or electricity. One in three Natives lives in poverty, and I think it’s important for people to realize that the poverty and disparities in Native communities can be quite profound. This disparity extends to access to healthcare.

I was raised to respect my elders, use my gifts, and to give back, whether that’s my tribe or my current community. Now I live in Detroit, and it is very important for me to give back to the community where I live and work, which is why I work in an emergency department caring for the underserved. I think this is true for a lot of Natives. Encouraging more Natives to go into medicine will help overcome these disparities because many of us will return to our communities.

Lastly, I would like to offer this Penobscot greeting: woliwoni, which means “thank you.”