A Familiar Face on Campus: Tahnee C. H. Prokopow

December 3, 2019

Get to know Tahnee and why she is so passionate about mentoring our students on their pathways into the healthcare field.

Walking into Health Professions Adviser Tahnee C. H. Prokopow’s office, the first thing you see is a framed child-sized bright blue poncho. But it’s more than a piece of art. It’s a piece of her history and often a conversation starter.

“People notice that it’s not from here and it’s a little old, so they are curious and ask. My mother bought it in 1973 from a village in Ecuador a year before my parents met me. My mom said she had asked God for a child and had a vision that she’d have a daughter with long black hair,” says Prokopow, whose parents worked in the Peace Corps at the time. “After they met me at the orphanage — I was the only girl in the orphanage whose hair the staff didn’t cut, for some reason, so it happened to be long and black — my mom gave me the poncho. It’s very small and I was three-and-a-half by then; it barely fit. I wore it only a couple of times, but I framed and display the poncho because it’s so beautiful in meaning and appearance."

Meeting with Tahnee recently she spoke about her formative years trying to get to the table — literally when hungry at the orphanage as a young child, a hunger she still remembers; and figuratively as a woman of color in healthcare fields working with minority populations — so that she could know how to best help others get a seat and have their voices heard.

You have childhood clothing framed in your office and you have said you are working on a family history document. Why is recognizing history so important to you?

My biological family dropped me off at an orphanage, with no information, when I was barely 3. The orphanage director found me outside on the steps. My parents adopted me nine months later, without even knowing my birth date. There’s a gap in my history that I will never know. When my son Ben was born — the first blood relative I’ve ever known — it was a feeling I cannot describe. I know blood doesn’t make a family; my adoptive family is my family. But I wanted to make sure that Ben knew what came before him, as much as I could share anyway. Maybe it’s something innate because passing down history is such a big part of indigenous peoples’ culture as I am a South American Indian - Quechua. Maybe it is because my parents can each trace their biological roots back more than 100 years. Either way, my son will have an assortment of family history when he’s older and hopefully have answers to any questions he has. 

You are very thorough when it comes to finding answers. Students see this at the Heath Professions Advising new student sessions and their individual advising sessions. Are you always at least one step ahead?

I’ve learned, especially as a member of underrepresented groups, that you need to be savvy and strategic. My mom told me she heard that when I was in the orphanage I befriended a 12-year-old girl who would help me fight the crowd at the table so I could get food. To get where you want to go, you need relationships and knowledge. I work to give that to our students, many of whom are from underrepresented groups and are the first in their families to go to college. We have amazing students here at UM-Dearborn. Many of them have had difficult experiences. But they have found their way here and share their dreams of medical school or graduate school with me. I want to help them see they are smarter, braver and stronger than they think. Accessibility to information is vital when it comes to attaining their dreams. I love helping students find their voice and get a seat at the table. Education leads to knowledge. Knowledge is power. Power can create change.

You’ve worked in public health and health advising for 25-plus years now. How did you get your seat?

Mentors. I’ve had so many like Laurita Thomas (retired U-M associate vice president for Human Resources) and Dr. David Gordon (former associate dean of Diversity of Career Development at the University of Michigan Medical School). Strong established people who helped me see what I could do. Early in my career, I didn’t know exactly what a mentor was, but — looking back — I always sought out role models. Whether a family member, professor or supervisor, connections, especially those people who see your ability and push you out of your comfort zone, can take you far.

Why are different voices important in the healthcare field?

Representation is essential. To best treat a population, you need to understand who you are treating. And our population is very diverse — and I’m not just talking about race; I’m talking about gender, sexual orientation, education, income and more. To best treat someone, it can help to understand where they are coming from. For example, when treating a Lakota from the Pine Ridge reservation for illness, it would be helpful if a physician knew that they don’t have access to clean water. It’s something a patient lives with everyday and might not think to share. Having diversity in healthcare also can help establish trust. If you, as a patient, have a doctor or healthcare worker you feel understands you, it establishes trust right away which helps build a strong doctor-patient relationship.

What is something you’ve learned on your educational journey?

It’s good to be driven, but sometimes you need to use your breaks and examine what you are doing. When I was in college, I wanted to help people so I thought I’d be a doctor. I knew my parents had given me an opportunity and wanted to do my best for all. I did three years of environmental toxicology research as an undergraduate. I was the first student at my college to work at the Mayo Clinic doing Alzheimer’s research. The Mayo Clinic even offered to fund my Ph.D. in neuroscience, which was the “it” field in the early 90s. But I was 21 and not ready. I worked so hard to be a success that I didn’t think about what I really wanted to do. I also needed to take some time to work through issues I had regarding my abandonment and adoption.  

So I did the unthinkable: I turned down the opportunity and took two gap years in my education. I took a job at U-M Health System (now Michigan Medicine) as a researcher in cancer biology. It was there that I learned about the public health field, which allowed me to help connect with people and be a healthcare advocate on a large scale, and later enroll in a graduate program at U-M’s School of Public Health. I’m very happy with where I am today. I feel like this is my calling. So I learned, if something doesn’t seem right to you, it’s ok to slow down, trust your instincts, and find yourself. 

You advise more than 1,200 students. What keeps you focused even on your most hectic days?

I know the dreams our students have. I also know how information and opportunities can change lives. No one could have predicted that a little girl from a South American orphanage would live in Iceland, Germany and the U.S., learn to speak English, German, do cancer research, and go to one of the best graduate schools in the world. But here I am because I was given the opportunity to excel. And I want to make sure I do everything in my power to help provide transformational knowledge, connections and opportunities to our students so they, in turn, can excel.

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