Graduation Profile: Finding strength and hope through difficulty

Leaving her home on the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation in South Dakota to study at KU changed Jordyn Gunville’s life in more ways than she ever imagined. Her move to Lawrence led her down an eye-opening path to her future in community health.

Gunville grew up in Eagle Butte, South Dakota in the poorest county in the United States. A county where the suicide rate is double the national average and where the life expectancy is 45. This served as motivation to get a great education.

“I was surrounded by oppression. I wanted to change the cycle of oppression, the cycle of hopelessness,” said Gunville, a senior in applied behavioral sciences.

Regardless of the poverty surrounding her childhood, she believes that growing up in those conditions fuel her drive to be a catalyst for change.

Gunville immediately fell in love with campus when she first visited. She also was surprised by the amount of diversity on campus. She thought to herself, “OK, I’ll fit in here.”

Her college experience started off a bit rocky. Sitting in a lecture hall in Budig, she realized just how different her life was going to be in Lawrence. Battling a bout of culture shock, Gunville failed her first exam and wasn’t sure what to do next. Then she found the service learning certification program.

“Service learning really opened a lot of doors for me and really gave me that practicality of taking what I learned in the classroom and using it immediately,” Gunville said. “I knew I wanted to be a doctor, but I didn’t have anyone I could ask, ‘How can I do this?’ Service learning gave me that advice.”

On her reservation, the definition of healthy is very different from Douglas County. Diabetes, obesity and congestive heart failure are just a few of the health issues most of her people deal with every day, and primary care physicians are nonexistent. Gunville wants to change that.

Finding doctors who are compassionate, culturally sensitive and an advocate for their patients is a dream of Gunville’s. She hopes to start medical school rotations and an internship program with the Pre-Medical Society at KU that will bring students to her reservation over the summer to get to know the community and experience the culture.

“It’s hard to teach cultural awareness. I can sit here and tell you what it’s like to be Indian, but if I took you to a ceremony, you would be so touched,” Gunville said. “And that would make you a better doctor, an efficient advocate for the people.”

In one of the core classes for her major, Gunville wrote a project proposal that ended up being a small step toward her dream.

Gunville poses with the inaugural LEAD UP group on campus.
Gunville poses with the inaugural LEAD UP group on campus.

“When I got to KU, I struggled with cultural identity. I struggled with resource knowledge,” Gunville recalled. “So I developed LEAD UP for American Indian high school students. The students came, and it was a success.”

Her project proposal resulted in a $10,000 grant to launch LEAD UP. LEAD UP focuses on academic and practical resources for 17 students from Cheyenne River Indian Reservation, as well as 15 minority students from Kansas City, Kansas. Gunville wanted to provide a strong foundation for success in college. The KU offices of admissions, financial aid and money management all participated.

Gunville said she didn’t need to leave a legacy, but she wanted to leave something for future students. She wanted to be like an older sibling who had already hit the bumps in the road and made the mistakes.

“I know the ins and outs, how to get around barriers, so they don’t have to spend six years getting a four-year degree,” Gunville said.

This program has one other important element – mentorship. Gunville connected a minority student at KU with each student who participated in LEAD UP. The mentors are in touch at least once a month for students to ask questions, provide encouragement and be a positive force in their lives.

“When kids are in bad situations and they see somebody taking an interest, they’re going to find value in themselves. They’re going to go on and on, and it’s going to be that chain reaction,” Gunville said. “They’re going to give back to their community.”

LEAD UP is already proving to be successful. Gunville proudly announced that one of the young women from her reservation who participated last year will be attending KU in the fall.

Gunville is on her way to making more of her dreams a reality starting with a research internship at Johns Hopkins before starting at KU School of Medicine in the fall. From there, she’s not sure what will happen, but she’s excited to keep moving.

“I didn’t really know what hope was until I came to KU – really until I discovered it at the beginning of this semester,” Gunville said. “When reality hit me that I am graduating, that I am going to be a doctor, I experienced the first feeling of hope ever in my life.”