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The Impact of a Dartmouth Education: The Story of the First Navajo WomanSurgeon

Lori Arviso Alvord '79
Lori Arviso Alvord '79

In the 1970s, when Lori Arviso Alvord '79 decided to attend college, the first in her generation to do so, she was an exception among high school graduates in Crown Point, an impoverished town in a Navajo community in northwest New Mexico. At Dartmouth, new worlds opened up to her and she began to discover a passion for medicine. She went on to obtain her medical degree from Stanford Medical School, eventually becoming the first Navajo woman to be board certified in surgery. 

Alvord is one of 51 college graduates recently profiled in Take a Closer Look: Opening Doors, Changing Lives, a publication produced by the Consortium on Financing Higher Education (COFHE), a 31-member consortium of private colleges and universities, including Dartmouth, that "seek ways to improve the quality and effectiveness of these institutions and to reinforce their efforts to remain affordable and accessible for students from all socioeconomic backgrounds," according to the publication.   

Maintaining accessibility to students from all backgrounds is a priority at Dartmouth, where students are admitted without regard to their ability to finance their educations. In 2006, 57 percent of Dartmouth students received financial aid. "Providing generous financial aid is a critical component of the mission of Dartmouth," says President James Wright. "I understand firsthand its importance, because I was a first-generation college graduate."

The introduction of Take a Closer Look reads, "The 51 men and women profiled in this book span a broad range of ages, backgrounds, and accomplishments; but they have three things in common. They attended some of the nation's oldest, most prominent and best endowed colleges and universities. They came from lower-and middle-income families and paid for college through a combination of work and financial aid, most of which came from the institution they attended. And in their lives and careers, they have demonstrated a lifetime commitment to the service of others."

Alvord gave back to her community by practicing general surgery at the Gallup Medical Center in Gallup, New Mexico for six years. There, working with Zuni and Navajo patients, she drew upon her expertise in both traditional Navajo customs and conventional Western medicine, developing a unique approach to healing that she detailed in an award-winning book about her life and her work, The Scalpel and the Silver Bear.

"Ultimately, Lori's vision of the healing arts is an elegant and credible one: a trusting relationship with the patient and harmony in the operating room are as necessary as the correct procedure to the success of the surgery and the recovery process," reads her biography in Take a Closer Look. Today, Alvord is assistant professor of surgery and associate dean for student and multicultural affairs at Dartmouth Medical School.

Dartmouth and the other members of the COFHE institutions serve a public trust, according to Take a Closer Look, and they fulfill that trust, in part, "by opening wide the doors of opportunity and by sending forth graduates-like the ones profiled in this book-whose college experiences inspired them to help make the world a better place for all of us."

Put more succinctly, President Wright says, "The students need our support, and the world needs our students."

By STEVEN J. SMITH

Questions or comments about this article? We welcome your feedback.

Last Updated: 12/17/08