“I’m Teaching the Future”

Becoming a doctor wasn’t his childhood dream. In fact, Erik Brodt ’02, M.D., decided to go to medical school the week before it started. But the decision proved to be the right one, both for Brodt, who is Ojibwe, and the many Native American voices he lifts up. Now he’s a physician, an associate professor of family medicine, and a passionate advocate for American Indian/Alaska Natives in health professions. In recognition of his work, he’s been elected to the prestigious National Academy of Medicine.

By Michelle Smith Westlund '83, S'21, senior content specialist

June 03, 2022 | 11:30 a.m.

Dr. Erik Brodt

Erik Brodt, M.D., is an associate professor of family medicine and assistant dean for Native American health in the Oregon Health & Science University School of Medicine. (photo credit: Oregon Health & Science University)


“I’m not the kid who at age 5 knew he wanted to be a doctor,” says Erik Brodt, M.D. Instead, Brodt—a biology and philosophy double major who graduated from Bethel in 2002—decided to go to medical school the week before it started. But the decision proved to be the right one, both for Brodt and the many Native American voices he seeks to lift up. Now Brodt is a physician, an associate professor of family medicine, and a passionate advocate for American Indian/Alaska Natives in health professions. In recognition of his work, he’s been elected to the prestigious National Academy of Medicine, whose members advise the nation on medical issues. 

Brodt, who is Ojibwe, grew up in northwestern Wisconsin and spent summers with his grandparents in the White Earth Reservation area of northwestern Minnesota. A dedicated athlete, he originally attended a state university to play football. There, he asked his coach which academic major would kick students out if they didn’t do well, and the coach told him “pre-med.” After choosing this major that would force him to excel, Brodt decided he needed a change of scenery. “I needed to be in a place where people really cared about each other, and from a football perspective, where the team really cared about each other,” he explains. “And I very much found that at Bethel.”

There, Brodt found a community through Bethel football. “On the football team,” he says, “I developed deep friendships—we were like brothers.” And like some of those friendships, the life lessons and leadership skills he learned through football have remained with him throughout his life. “Football taught me lessons in practice and preparation, accountability, and living a life of service to others,” says Brodt. “Looking at my leadership style now, I’ve learned almost all of it through athletics, and the pinnacle of that happened while I was at Bethel. I approach team-building the same way [Head Football] Coach Steve Johnson did at Bethel. In fact, I still think about him and the lessons he taught me every single week.”

One turning point in particular stays with Brodt. “I had a mentality that leaned toward perfection, that if I wasn’t perfect, I wasn’t performing well,” he says. “One game my senior year, I started but didn’t do that well—I was too worried about being perfect. So Coach pulled me out of the game. When I went back in, I let that perfectionism go, and on one play, I just ran right through a human being from the other team. And I was laughing and having so much fun! After the play, Coach pulled me aside and said, ‘Brodie, watching you play free is one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen. I want you to play free all the time, and I’m not talking about football—I’m talking about life.’ And he said all this in the middle of the game!”             

Besides the encouragement of Coach Johnson and the football team, Brodt found support from caring and accessible faculty members in philosophy and biology. One philosophy professor in particular pushed him to see multiple perspectives. “Every time I’m on inpatient wards, I think of [Professor of Philosophy Emeritus] Don Postema,” says Brodt. “He was really influential in helping me see multiple sides of a story, multiple sides of an argument, multiple perspectives.” 

Brodt says that even the challenges at Bethel helped shape him. “There were only eight Native American students at Bethel when I was there,” he explains. “But you can grow comfortable with your own voice when you’re not like everybody else. Part of what has made me effective is that I don’t really fit in anywhere. I’m comfortable not belonging."

“What I found at Bethel was this strong sense of purpose. If you’re going to be an advocate and make a difference in the world, being in a purpose-minded environment is very fertile soil for someone like me to grow.”

— Dr. Erik Brodt ’02

Armed with his developing passion for advocacy, his increasing comfort with his own voice, and his determination to live in newfound freedom, Brodt decided—with some hesitation—to go to medical school, finalizing his plans the week before it started. “I didn’t know if medical school was the place for me,” he says. “There’s a tremendous amount of imposter syndrome if you come from a lower socioeconomic background. You don’t see a lot of Ojibwe doctors in medical school.”

Yet Brodt excelled, graduating from the University of Minnesota Medical School and completing the Swedish Cherry Hill Family Medicine Residency Program at the Seattle Indian Health Board clinical site. He worked in rural emergency departments and hospitals in Minnesota before becoming a hospitalist at the University of Wisconsin, where he launched the Native American Center for Health Professions. In 2017, he joined the Oregon Health & Science University School of Medicine in Portland, where he is now an associate professor of family medicine and assistant dean for Native American health.

In that role, Brodt directs the university’s Northwest Native American Center of Excellence, which works to “sustainably address the healthcare needs of all people by increasing the number of American Indian/Alaska Natives in the U.S. health professions workforce,” according to its website. The center’s best-known initiative might be the Wy’east Post-Baccalaureate Pathway, a 10-month program for talented Native American students that serves as an alternative to the traditional medical school admissions process. Twenty-seven Wy’east students have completed the initiative since 2018, and 22 have enrolled in medical school.

In recognition of his work, in October 2021 Brodt was elected to the National Academy of Medicine, one of the highest honors in the fields of health and medicine, which selects individuals who have demonstrated outstanding professional achievement and commitment to service. Brodt was recognized for “leadership in American Indian/Alaska Native workforce development and pioneering innovative methods to identify, inspire, and support American Indian/Alaska Native youth to excel.”

Brodt sees the honor as an opportunity for advocacy work for American Indian/Alaska Natives to be further elevated. “This is much less about me and more about the field,” he says. “The opportunities that have been opened by this recognition are really precious. I’m able to have conversations on a much different level with people in various areas of government, agencies, offices, and schools, and our team is able to be much more effective in amplifying this work.”

Ultimately, Brodt is affirming and encouraging future Native leaders in the same way his coaches, mentors, and friends have encouraged him. In that, he’s seeing his own dreams becoming realized as he helps others realize theirs. “My goal is to eliminate American Indian and Alaska Native health inequities, and you can’t do that if you don’t have Native voices in the healthcare system and structure,” he says. “My dream is that Indigenous people will be the leaders on this continent once again, ushering in a more service- and wisdom-based structure for all of us to flourish. Within my small realm, that’s what I’m working toward. I’m teaching the future.”

We gratefully acknowledge the contributions of Franny White, senior media relations specialist, Oregon Health & Science University, to this story.

Your journey starts here.

A Bethel education prepares you to excel in your chosen career path—even if you haven’t decided on it yet. Here, you’ll find supportive faculty, coaches, and mentors who will help you find your voice. And with a Christian perspective integrated into every academic experience, you’ll learn what it means to own your faith and live for something more, wherever your journey leads.

Learn more