Four students from Western Carolina University have been selected for eight-week internships with the Mountain Area Health Education Center in Asheville, providing an opportunity to gain firsthand experience and working knowledge in health careers.

MAHEC is a Western North Carolina family care provider and, as a part of the University of North Carolina system, trains physicians and health professionals with a goal toward increasing health care availability throughout WNC. It is recognized nationally as a model for innovative continuing wellness education. The internships began March 7 and conclude at the end of April.

“These internships are quite competitive and, in addition to getting a high level of exposure to medicine, pharmacy and dentistry, they also as a group have a high percent chance of getting into medical, pharmacy or dental school as a result of their experience here,” said Dr. Jeffery E. Heck, MAHEC president and CEO.

The selected WCU students are Jessica Flowers, a senior from Wadesboro majoring in biology; William Pfeiffer, a senior and emergency medical care major from Raleigh; Sara Clark, a senior from Marion with dual majors in biology and Spanish; and Adrianna Warner, a junior from Brevard with a major in special studies with a neuroscience pre-professional concentration.

“Internships like this one allow students the opportunity to give back to their surrounding communities by becoming involved in something they are passionate about ― health and medicine,” said Theresa Cruz Paul, director of the WCU Center for Career and Professional Development. “Students are able to work with professionals in their field in the local community. Western Carolina University’s relationship with MAHEC provides a straightforward path for students who want to enter these fields as a profession.”

mahecThe four students cited personal experiences as an important factor in sparking their interests in health career professions and seeking an internship.

Flowers remembers accompanying her mother, who suffered a chronic illness, on visits to physicians and specialists, and the organ transplants that saved her life ― for a while. Though her mother died in 2009, Flowers said the experience allowed her to realize how much she wants to go into medicine. “MAHEC is directed towards providing high-quality care to patients not only in Western North Carolina but to the entire state,” she said. “Once I become a doctor, I want to help meet the needs of this state because I want to give back to the community and the state that helped and supported me to get to where I am today.”

Pfeiffer believes a pivotal moment for him was early in an EMT basic class and the real life experiences that come with such training. “It may sound cliche, but at that moment during my first morning in the back of an ambulance holding a patient’s hand and talking to her about her family, I knew exactly where I belonged,” he said. “I learned that I am at my best when I can be helping others, whether by listening to them and being supportive or just lending a helping hand.”

It was on a dirty, crowded bus ride back home from a busy day working at a health clinic in a Peruvian village that Clark had the happy realization her trip would continue into a journey to medical school. “My experiences in Peru changed my life and opened my eyes to the different possibilities in medicine, as well as what I am really passionate about,” Clark said, adding that her knowledge of the Spanish language will help during her internship with MAHEC as it reaches out to a wider range of patients in the region.

Warner said being a first-generation college student from a mountain family helped shape her desire to pursue medical school and then work with a rural, underserved population. “Over the past two years, I have volunteered at the Good Samaritan Clinic of Jackson County, working with people from all walks of life,” she said. “Having the privilege of working with patients and care providers at the clinic, I found myself connecting with patients and falling in love with these people. Volunteering at the clinic has furthered my dedication to studying medicine and reminded me of the importance of being culturally competent and patient-oriented.”

The process for selection for an internship is involved and competitive, requiring personal commitment and dedication, MAHEC officials said.

“I enjoyed interviewing all the quality WCU students, and am inspired by their background and passion for medical careers,” said Dr. Robyn A. Latessa, director and assistant dean of the UNC School of Medicine Asheville and clinical director for MAHEC’s Center for Health Professions Education. “We are excited to provide these internship experiences to health care profession students at WCU, and believe this opportunity will allow them to make the connections needed for their future paths. I am continually amazed at the win-win of these undergraduate internships. In addition to us giving to them, we are always rewarded and rejuvenated here at MAHEC by our connection with students’ enthusiasm, idealism and stories.”

For more information about MAHEC, go to or call 828-257-4000. For more information about WCU’s Center for Career and Professional Development, call 828-227-7133.