Like the rest of her fellow 2020 graduates, Alyssa Farrow’s college career didn’t end the way she’d planned. Despite the circumstances, she was still able to mark the occasion in a big way.

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Alyssa Farrow rocked the Twitterverse when she announced that she was the first person in her Native American tribe to graduate from Stanford. Now, the 2020 graduate plans to invest her Stanford education in her hometown.

After watching Stanford’s virtual graduation celebration at home in Oregon where she grew up, Farrow took to Twitter to announce the milestone to her followers.

“I graduated from college today. First-generation, low-income, and first from my tribe to graduate from Stanford. Wild,” she tweeted.

The message quickly attracted hundreds of thousands of likes – and then thousands more retweets and comments. Farrow said she was shocked by her sudden viral fame.

“I didn’t know how to react,” she said. “So, I kind of kept it a secret for as long as I could.”

But that proved to be easier said than done. The tweet continued to gain traction, thanks, in part, to some high-profile social media personalities who interacted with it, including actors Mark Ruffalo, Rosie O’Donnell and Keegan Michael Key. Even Oregon’s governor, Kate Brown, retweeted it and offered her congratulations to Farrow. The following day, Farrow started getting requests for interviews, including from The Wall Street Journal, E! News and The Ellen DeGeneres Show.

“I definitely didn’t expect to go viral,” Farrow said. “That was not my intent, at all.”

Home away from Stanford

The excitement of the tweet was a stark contrast to an otherwise quiet day that, under normal circumstances, would have been shared with friends and classmates and marked with the usual pomp and pageantry of Stanford’s Commencement ceremony. Instead, Farrow and her mother celebrated at their home on the Umatilla Indian Reservation in rural Oregon.

Alyssa Farrow’s tweet announcing that she graduated from Stanford quickly went viral. (Image credit: Courtesy Alyssa Farrow)

Located along the Columbia Plateau in the northeastern part of the state, the reservation is small and home to about 3,500 members of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla. Farrow said that growing up there wasn’t always easy. Few residents attend college, and many are low-income and face health challenges.

“Like most reservations in the United States, we have a lot of health disparities that range from mental health, physical health and spiritual health, due to colonialism,” she said. “I wanted to break that cycle for the betterment of myself and the future generations and my community.”

Growing up, Farrow threw herself into academics and school activities. She attended a local tribal high school where the curriculum included Native American cultural studies in addition to the state academic requirements. She excelled, becoming her class valedictorian and earning the Gates Millennium Scholarship, a full academic scholarship for high-achieving minority students.

Farrow said that her first visit to Stanford made a major impression. Meeting other native students and touring the Native American theme dorm, Muwekma-Tah-Ruk, made it clear that this was the school for her.

“The vibe in the air was so welcoming and so refreshing,” she said. “I could see myself there for four years or more.”

At Stanford, Farrow was active with the Native American Community Center. She was also a committee member for the Stanford Powwow and lived in Muwekma-Tah-Ruk, where she was a staff member. Farrow majored in psychology with a concentration in health and development. She had initially planned to pursue a medical career and become a doctor but has decided instead on a career in public health. And the pandemic, she said, has only reinforced that career path.

Giving back

In early June, the Umatilla Indian Reservation was hit with its first cases of COVID-19. Today there are more than 50 cases, and at least one person has died from the disease. Farrow said that neighboring tribes have also been hit hard by the illness.

“It’s been difficult,” she said. “But I think we’ll be OK as long as we keep social distancing and quarantining and doing contact tracing and testing.”

Seeing her community struggle with the virus, in addition to its other challenges, has reminded Farrow of the need for public health professionals in communities like hers. She’s also inspired by a health crisis closer to home; her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2010.

“I had enjoyed the way that the doctors and nurses and her health care team had taken care of her,” Farrow said. “I really appreciated that.”

Farrow intends to apply to graduate school this fall to pursue a master’s degree in public health. She hopes to spend her career working to improve health outcomes for indigenous communities.

As she looks back at Stanford and ahead to the next phase of her journey, Farrow said her experience on the Farm has provided a solid foundation for her future.

“I will cherish the four years that I spent there and I’m really excited to see what is next,” she said.