CULLOWHEE – The diagnosis is in and the long-term prognosis for the condition of health care in Western North Carolina is improving, with the dedication of Western Carolina University’s new 160,000-square foot Health and Human Sciences Building.
More than 300 people ranging from first-year nursing students to hospital CEOs attended a dedication ceremony Thursday, Feb. 28, to celebrate the new facility. The $46 million Health and Human Sciences Building, which opened to students in the fall, features customized classrooms and seminar rooms and 21 specialized labs serving more than 1,200 undergraduates and 300 graduate students in diverse high-demand, health-related programs.
The facility is the first to be constructed on WCU’s West Campus, 344 acres across N.C. Highway 107 from the main campus that were acquired in 2005 as part of the Millennial Initiative. A comprehensive regional economic development strategy, the Millennial Initiative promotes university collaboration with private industry and government partners to enhance hands-on student learning and collaborative research.
In remarks at Thursday’s dedication ceremony, Western Carolina Chancellor David O. Belcher thanked an array of elected officials – and the taxpayers of the state of North Carolina – for their ongoing support of the facility, envisioned as a place of learning, collaboration and community where doctors’ offices, clinics and other health-related businesses and organizations will one day locate.
“In an era in which many suggest that higher education should intensify focus on careers for graduates, I think it is important to note that the graduates of the programs offered in Western Carolina University’s College of Health and Human Sciences find good, high-paying jobs almost immediately after graduating. And those jobs are in the helping professions, which strive to improve the health and well-being of our community, our region, our state and our nation,” Belcher said.
“What we do in and through this facility is all about economic and community development, and the investments which North Carolina, Western Carolina University, and philanthropic individuals and corporations have made in this Health and Human Sciences Building will pay untold dividends for years to come throughout the western region of our state,” he said.
Tom Ross, president of the University of North Carolina system, said the teaching, learning and outreach activities that are taking place in WCU’s Health and Human Sciences Building are helping to meet critical – and growing – needs.
“When I go around the state, people in every corner of North Carolina have told us over and over that improving access to health care is a critical challenge facing their communities. That is particularly true in the western part of our state, where there is a real and growing need for more qualified health care professionals of every kind,” Ross said.
“This is an absolutely marvelous facility equipped with state-of-the art classrooms and simulation labs and research labs. But we are not here this morning to celebrate just the addition of square footage,” he said. “What really matters is the long-term impact this building is already having on Western Carolina’s ability to prepare students for successful careers in the health care industry, to improve patient care and well-being, and to support health-related service and outreach to the surrounding community and region. It’s not so much about the facility; it’s about the lives that will be transformed here.”
In addition to architectural elements that foster interdisciplinary collaboration among faculty and students in various health-related academic disciplines, the facility also was built with energy-efficient features that qualify it for certification at the silver level in LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, from the U.S. Green Building Council. The building was nestled into a hillside with as small a footprint as possible as part of a concerted effort to make it as environmentally sensitive as possible, said Joan MacNeill, chair of WCU’s Board of Trustees.
“We have such a massive sense of pride and accomplishment today in the innovative design of this building, a design that not only creates a state-of-the-art learning environment, but also respects the surrounding environment,” MacNeill said.
“On a personal note, having studied nursing back in the days of Florence Nightingale, I can tell you that if Florence were here today, she would look around and think she had been beamed aboard the Starship Enterprise,” she said. “It is amazing.”
The new Health and Human Sciences Building will play an important role in establishing Western North Carolina as a leader in improving the quality of health care in the state, N.C. Rep. Joe Sam Queen said.
“This is the first rung on the ladder of a new day of leadership in health, in health care and in health care leadership for Western North Carolina,” Queen said. “Our part of the state will lead North Carolina in health, wellness and aging. It begins here. It begins here on the first anchor building of this millennial campus.”
Before sending visitors through the new building to see demonstrations in physical therapy, athletic training, human movement and nursing simulation labs, and in clinical spaces currently under development such as the balance and fall prevention clinic, Marie Huff, interim dean of the College of Health and Human Sciences, asked them to think about the impact the facility is having on the surrounding community.
For example, the building features the only contained insect lab in the region, where researchers are studying how to eradicate mosquito-borne viruses such as La Crosse encephalitis; allows students and faculty to guide support groups for individuals in families touched by Alzheimer’s disease; provides space for more than 1,700 sessions a year in the Speech and Hearing Clinic at low or no cost; and is home to a social skills group for children with autism.
“As you walk throughout this building and find yourself in awe over the lifelike simulators that can moan and groan with the best of us, as you marvel over the state-of-the-art technology and equipment in the labs, as you enjoy your stroll through our beautiful clinical spaces, take just a moment to consider what this building means for our students, and ultimately for our community,” Huff said.
In addition to the dedication, a sneak peek open house was held for about 100 members of the WNC medical community Wednesday, Feb. 27. Attendees included external medical and health care partners Carolina West Sports Medicine, Cherokee Indian Hospital, Community Care Clinic of Highlands/Cashiers, Comprehensive Pain Consultants of the Carolinas, Jackson County Department of Health, Mountain Area Health Education Center, MedWest Harris, MedWest Haywood, Mission Hospital, Mountain Care Urology, Mountain Regional Cancer Center, Murphy Medical and Vecinos.
Speakers at the “sneak peek,” in addition to Belcher and Huff, were Steve Heatherly, CEO of MedWest Harris; Kathleen Culhane Guyette, senior vice president of patient health care services at Mission Health System; Casey Cooper, CEO of Cherokee Indian Hospital; and Lauren Garland, a senior nursing major.
Although WCU’s previous nursing graduates studied in cramped quarters without the high-tech labs and equipment offered by the new Health and Human Sciences Building, over the years they still have earned high pass rates on licensure exams and gone on to successful careers in the health care field, Garland said. “I can only imagine what the future holds for graduates of the nursing program because of the advantages offered by this new building,” she said.
The building brings under one roof students and faculty from disciplines including nursing, physical therapy, communication sciences and disorders, social work, athletic training, emergency medical care, environmental health, nutrition and dietetics, and recreational therapy. It also has enabled WCU to bring back to campus seniors in its prelicensure nursing program who previously were taking classes in Asheville because of the lack of adequate instructional facilities and equipment on the Cullowhee campus.