Dr. Irene Hamrick ’91 had dreams of becoming a physician even as a 9-year-old growing up in Germany, but she had to battle some long odds on the road to earning her medical degree in the U.S. and becoming a nationally recognized expert in geriatrics. Hamrick recalls her fifth-grade teacher in Germany telling her mother that she didn’t have the capacity to learn English. Instead, Hamrick went on to become conversant in five foreign languages and major in biology and chemistry in preparation for medical school.

During her last year of school in Germany, Hamrick met a U.S. Army solder stationed in that country. They married, and Hamrick moved with him to Missouri in the states. For the next five years, she was a stay-at-home mom of two boys in Missouri and North Carolina, working at odd jobs such as pulling galax, sewing and making cheese out of bartered milk to pay the bills because of her then-husband’s alcoholism, and she and her boys also had to rely on public assistance to survive. With her dream of becoming a physician still in her mind, she enrolled in the general education program at Mayland Community College, and then transferred into the nursing program at Western Carolina University.

One of Hamrick’s faculty mentors at WCU remembers her sharp focus on her education, even when faced with the task of raising two young boys alone. Mable Carlyle ’73, who is retired after 23 years on WCU’s nursing faculty, said Hamrick’s sons sometimes needed to be occupied while she was in class, and so Hamrick placed two chairs just outside the classroom door, where the boys sat for the hourlong class, chatting quietly to not be disruptive and playing with their “activity bags.” “The minute Irene came out of class, they each received a cookie as a reward,” Carlyle said. “That painted a picture of Irene’s standards for me.”

Hamrick went on to graduate summa cum laude (with highest honors) from WCU and earned her medical degree at East Carolina University, where she remained for 20 years, holding fellowships in geriatric medicine and faculty development and also researching health disparities in osteoporosis. She moved to the University of Wisconsin-Madison six years ago to expand her research in the area of falls prevention among older adults. Now serving as geriatric services director for the University of Wisconsin’s Department of Family Medicine and Community Health, Hamrick teaches all levels of students in the Teaching Nursing Home, a program she developed to educate students and resident physicians in caring for patients in that setting.

Hamrick returned to Cullowhee last October to accept the WCU Alumni Association’s Academic Achievement Award. Speaking directly to current students attending a Homecoming awards ceremony, she said her faculty mentors at WCU fueled her academic pursuits and research in geriatrics. “Really pursue your dreams and go after what you’re planning to do,” she said. “Western is a very fertile ground.”