Melissa Metoxen is described as a bridge builder, advocate, activist and mentor.

She brings these qualities to her daily work as a community and academic support coordinator for the Native American Center for Health Professions in the School of Medicine and Public Health. And they are why she was recently honored as a recipient of the UW-Madison Outstanding Women of Color Award.

Though she grew up in a military family until she was 15, Wisconsin is the place Metoxen calls home. As an enrolled member of the Oneida Nation, her professional work is deeply personal.

“Being from a tribal community there’s always a wanting to give back and serve your community,” she says. “Because we are tribal members we are a sovereign nation, we are very distinct communities and we want to make sure that our communities thrive.”

Serving as liaison and fostering the relationship between the First Nations and the university has been a significant part of her life on campus both as a student and as an employee for nearly 15 years. She was instrumental in the development of the Native American Center for Health Professions and was hired as its first employee.

Melissa Metoxen speaking at a podium
Melissa Metoxen

Metoxen works directly with pre-college and college students interested in pursuing health careers, and with Wisconsin tribal communities to coordinate outreach activities, as well as partnerships and educational opportunities for health professional students. With her mentorship, applications of Native American students, an historically underrepresented community in medicine, have increased by more than 250 percent.

Even though neither of her parents attended college, education was something that was highly valued and encouraged in Metoxen’s family, and she and her three siblings all have college degrees. Metoxen is an important voice of encouragement for the next generation.

Danielle Yancey, director of the Native American Center for Health Professions, who nominated Metoxen for the award, says of her colleague, “Ms. Metoxen has affected hundreds of young students’ lives, many of whom now serve as campus and community leaders. Ms. Metoxen is a tireless advocate working to increase the educational and advancement opportunities for students and staff.”

Being a first-generation college student 20 years ago makes her uniquely qualified to understand the needs of the students she mentors.

“Making sure Native American students have the same experience of other students in terms of access, positive role models and experiences is what drives me to build relationships and provide outreach,” Metoxen says.

She emphasized that outreach needs to begin in middle and high school.

“Seeing someone who looks like them as a pharmacist or a doctor is important,” she says. “I want them to know they can achieve any goal they have for themselves. I want to build up their confidence and make sure our youth are given the tools they need to succeed."

Metoxen’s leadership and guidance have also been instrumental in creating several tribal-academic partnerships. Her colleagues, Dorothy Farrar-Edwards, PhD, and Christine Sorkness, PharmD, from the Collaborative Center for Health Equity, wrote in their letter of support, “Ms. Metoxen is an incredible navigator who gracefully guides campus-based organizations toward effective and respectful partnerships while ensuring bi-directional, mutual benefit.”

She has been involved in a pilot project partnership between the Oneida Nation and the Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center and fostered a collaboration between the School of Medicine and Public Health and Oneida’s agricultural farm Tsyunhehkwa (Joon-hey-kwa) to teach students traditional food ways that align with better community and public health.

Metoxen was honored for her work and received the Outstanding Women of Color Award along with four of her peers from across campus on March 5. Many of her family members attended the ceremony, and she said the experience of hearing the other women’s stories and seeing the support from the community was moving.

But one special moment from that evening eclipsed them all.

“My grandpa gifted me with an eagle feather, which is one of the highest honors you can receive as a Native person,” Metoxen said. “It is usually given when you accomplish something significant in the community and presented by a veteran. My grandpa is a Korean War veteran. That made the experience unforgettable.”