Alumni Spotlight: Andrew Tobey

TMCC alumni Andrew Tobey
Rebecca A. Eckland

TMCC alumnus Andrew Tobey is currently the Native American Program Director for Nevada INBRE, where he has been working to develop a program focused on reducing health disparities and increasing positive academic outcomes in the Native American community that will launch in the Fall 2021 semester. The program, called the INBRE Tribal Academy of Health and Science, is the result of Tobey’s own life experience as well as his long educational journey that began at TMCC fourteen years ago.  

“Our goal is to create enough wellness of the individual—so mentally, physically, spiritually and socially—to make them resilient enough to handle all the difficulties in college, while at the same time teaching them what it means to study. Right now, only 40% of Native American students finish high school,” Tobey said. 

Tobey knows firsthand the challenges Native American students face when they take the tentative step into higher education: raised on the Paiute Reservation north of Reno, Tobey was homeschooled along with his five siblings. His parents encouraged all the children to take their education seriously and to consider the possibility of a college education, despite limited resources. 

“TMCC made more sense for us, from a financial standpoint, but also... that was the first time I was in a class of thirty people.  [The atmosphere at] TMCC was a bit more comforting and allowed me to ease into this idea of college. Because the classes were smaller, I was able to get to know the instructors, I saw and spoke to them often, and I didn’t feel as though I was lost in a sea of faces,” he said. 

Cultivating a Passion for Science

“I’ve always been interested in science,” Tobey said “I was the first one from my family to study science, and it’s a whole different language and understanding things.” However, thanks to the Nevada INBRE and the help of Dr. Julie Ellsworth and Dr. Melissa Deadmond, Tobey would select a degree that aligned with his interests that would then lead him to UNR where he worked with Dr. Josh Baker, Interim Chair for the Department of Pharmacology and the Director of INBRE for the State of Nevada. This would lead him to another promising opportunity. 

“I worked as a PostBac (Post-Baccalaureate) full-time with the NIH (National Institutes of Health) for three years after college, focusing on bioinformatics with the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) on metastic differentiated thyroid cancer. Because of that, I was able to obtain four publications from my work during those three years resulting in [my] first authorship on three of the four publications,” he said. “When I look back on it, it all started with TMCC and INBRE. It would have been so much harder to build those connections if I had been in a different environment.”  

However, the journey wasn’t exactly easy. Although Tobey’s parents worked hard to pool resources to make the best situation possible, there was also only one car for the entire family, and so Tobey’s days began earlier than most college students do. 

“It takes an hour to drive to TMCC from the reservation, and I was usually there early in the morning before the college opened. I was dropped off there, while the rest of the family was dropped off in other places. So many times when I was at TMCC and later at UNR, I was the first one to arrive on campus at 6:30 in the morning—no one else was there—and I would just wait for the library to open at 7:30. I would just sit outside waiting, whether it was summer, winter, or even snowing, I would have to sit there and wait for the building to open. And then at night, I was literally the last one to leave.” 

Working online was also a challenge. When Tobey was a TMCC and UNR student, the family relied on a dial-up connection. “We don’t have any way of getting a better connection, and I’m fortunate right now because we can afford unlimited plans on our cell phone [for a cellular connection], but most people on the reservation don’t have internet access at all.”

Tobey hopes to fill in those gaps for students who may not have the support they need to complete a college degree. This is especially important when you consider that only 11% of Native Americans have an associate degree, 9% have earned their bachelor’s and 5% have persisted to earn a graduate-level degree. By offering supports, Tobey hopes students will be able to persist to a two or four-year degree despite encountering the challenges that inevitably surface. 

“A part of my job [now] is figuring out how we can change that,” Tobey said. “So, we’re using my experience a little bit, but also understanding what everyone else in the tribe is going through. It can be hard things, like family support. Or maybe you’re not able to drive every day into town to go to school. Even so, you have to be resilient. Do you want it, and how much are you willing to sacrifice to get it? That can be really hard if you don’t have a family support system. I was lucky that I did.” 

Starting with high school juniors and seniors in the tribe, Tobey wants to reinforce the importance of staying healthy in mind, body and spirit. And then, to get them to start their journey at TMCC where they can earn a two-year associate degree, a much closer target than a four-year bachelor’s. 

“I know when I send students from the tribe to TMCC they will be cared for and looked after. The faculty there want to teach, and they want to know that their students have that passion. That’s what I experienced, and so I know when I send students there, they won’t be lost in the void,” he said. 

Looking to the Future

Even after all these years of studying science—and the added obstacle of a learning disorder—Tobey admits that it remains his passion and one that may take him to medical school. It was his time at NIH as an associate investigator that showed him a new possibility of combining science and human health. 

“At NIH, the lab [where I worked] was literally a hallway away from the clinic. And that was my job: I’d go into surgeries and collect the cancer tissues and study them to figure out what the best treatment would be. I just fell in love with it. It was blending all the things I want to know,” he said. 

His current role in Nevada INBRE is enabling him to continue this kind of work to bring an understanding to the reasons why Native Americans have health disparities, a shorter life expectancy, and are at high risk for alcoholism, drug abuse, domestic abuse, to name a few examples. Tobey hopes that by going into endocrinology and working with a human health partner to not only understand the medical condition that causes these issues but to prevent it from happening in the first place. 

“So, it’s a question of, can we change that thing, and then hopefully change the people and make them healthier as a whole. Granted, it’s easier to work on human health when there are 5,000 people in the population rather than millions. If we can figure out something that works like that, it could be applied to other tribes as well, and then we’re making advances in human health.” 

Don’t Be Afraid to Fail

To students who are just starting on their academic journeys, Tobey advises to take failures in stride and to do your best to learn from your mistakes. “Look at failure as an opportunity,” he said. “School is no different than life: you’ll fail more than you succeed. But, if you learn from these failures, then you’ll get where you want to go in order to meet your goal.”

He also advises students to be intentional about what they devote their time to during their college years. “Go to college for the right reasons. Don’t go because your Mom did, or because it’s what people do, or because this degree is the easiest or this degree makes the most money. College is meant to fulfill a part of your life so that, when you reach Monday morning, you’re going to spend the rest of your life happy and excited to go to work,” he said. “I didn’t do a whole lot of what they would consider a ‘normal college experience’... but when I wake up every morning, I’m excited about my life—it fits. And so finding that fit is what is going to make you more fulfilled in your life.”  

TMCC 50th Anniversary Celebration 

As a part of TMCC’s 50th Anniversary Celebration for the 2021–2022 academic year, we will be highlighting the success stories of our amazing alumni. Check back with our anniversary website for more details of the ongoing celebration or send your alumni success stories to our Marketing and Communications team.