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Trailblazing graduates: UCPS Health Sciences Academy at Monroe High celebrates inaugural class

On May 30, Union County Public Schools (UCPS) celebrated the first graduating class of the Health Sciences Academy (HSA) at Monroe High School. The event, which took place at the Union County Agricultural and Event Complex, was attended by families, board members, Atrium Health and UCPS staff and leadership, all gathered to honor the achievements of these pioneering students.

The seven-year partnership between UCPS and Atrium Health demonstrates Superintendent Dr. Andrew Houlihan's visionary leadership. From its conception in 2017, Dr. Houlihan recognized the potential of joining forces with the healthcare system to provide unparalleled opportunities for students. Through strategic recruitment and thoughtful curriculum development, students have fully engaged in a dynamic learning experience. The first group of students, who began at Monroe Middle in the sixth grade, are now graduating. They exemplify the success of this partnership, demonstrating innovation and educational excellence nurtured by UCPS and Atrium Health staff.

"We have been looking forward to this evening for quite some time. It is rare for a superintendent in a public school system to envision something years ago and then actually witness it coming to fruition. I am proud of this work and this program that has become a reality," said Dr. Houlihan.

Dr. Houlihan added, "We knew a health sciences program like this would change lives and help our families and students. The experiences these students have had are extremely rare, working alongside hospital executives, participating in lab experiences, engaging in critical thinking exercises, and so much more. You are all prepared for college and the workforce. You can compete with anyone in America, given the skill sets and learning you have achieved."

Thirteen students committed to and completed the program thanks to this unique partnership. One that Ian Boeving, a student in the program and speaker at the event, remembered well.

Ian, then a fifth-grader at Wingate Elementary, and his family attended a Board of Education meeting to see his brother receive an award. During the meeting, a discussion about the upcoming launch of HSA at Monroe Middle caught Ian's attention. Intrigued by the possibilities, he petitioned to transfer to the middle school to join the HSA program.

Ian spoke passionately about his experiences at HSA, which ultimately led him to pursue a military career. He credits HSA with raising his self-expectations, as the program consistently demands excellence from its students. Through HSA, Ian developed a strong foundation in leadership and cultivated a strong work ethic.

"I thought I was going to be an infectious disease doctor. The challenge and allure pushed me to want to do that. It gave me the commitment and motivation to join the program," said Ian. "I have taken medical Spanish, neuroscience, medical investigators, health sciences and biomedical science. I also realized becoming an infectious disease doctor was not for me. Now I feel my calling is to serve people and my country."

Ian emphasized the importance of oaths in various professions, including the medical field, highlighting the promises to uphold core values and duties. He explained that the oaths may involve defending one's country, saving lives, protecting the public, and providing care to those in need. In the medical profession, the pledge includes restoring health, treating the vulnerable, and positively impacting patients' lives. He stressed the importance of honoring these commitments.

Addressing his peers, Ian said, "Never compromise on your values or disregard a human life for convenience or profit. A single act of kindness can change the world." He concluded by expressing his gratitude to the staff and everyone who made the academy possible, acknowledging their crucial role in their success.

Denise White, Atrium Health vice president, facility executive and chief nurse executive, Atrium Health spoke on behalf of Atrium. She thanked the UCPS and Atrium Health staff and the principals for their dedication to the program.

White, a veteran of the healthcare profession, expressed her excitement and acknowledged the tremendous hard work that has shaped HSA into what it is today. In her remarks, she also celebrated the students' remarkable accomplishments and their parents.

"I think you have chosen a career path that intertwines compassion, knowledge and the pursuit of economic mobility," said White. "Students, I want to thank you personally because your passion, energy and excitement for healthcare reignite us; it lights our fire. Whether you become a clinician, a medical researcher, a biomedical engineer, a paramedic or any other healthcare-associated profession, your purpose remains constant. It is to heal, comfort and uplift."

Students Natalie Lopez and Jordan Massey took the stage to share their experiences.

Natalie Lopez knew from a young age that she wanted to help people. Seeing her grandfather battle cancer inspired her to pursue a healthcare career. When she discovered that her middle school offered this opportunity, she seized it immediately. HSA has helped her develop communication and collaboration skills and increased her self-confidence. Natalie took college classes and a certified nursing assistant (CNA) course, gaining real-world experience and 23 college credits.

"HSA is an opportunity for students to have a hands-on experience. Taking courses such as nurse aid and watching live surgeries was eye-opening. It confirmed healthcare is what I am passionate about," said Natalie. "I will further my education through Atrium's Rise to Success program by working at Atrium Health while studying radiology at Stanley Community College."

Jordan, who aspired to become a surgeon, discovered her passion for nursing through HSA. Gaining her CNA certification and working alongside nurses for a year showed her their impact on patients' lives.

"Throughout my time at the academy, I explored multiple healthcare careers. After taking the nurse aid course at South Piedmont Community College, I earned my certification and have worked as a CNA for over a year. Working at the nursing home reaffirms my passion daily," said Jordan. "I have had the opportunity to take several courses, which will help me earn my bachelor's degree in nursing sooner than others will be able to."

The first graduating class has achieved some remarkable academic achievements. They have collectively earned an impressive cumulative GPA of 3.79. Additionally, 12 seniors are enrolled in college courses, while nine have completed a nurse aide course. Five seniors have secured spots in Atrium Health’s Rise to Success Program, where they have earned 145 college credits together and plan to earn an extra 24 credits this summer.

Several students have earned notable scholarships. Jordan, for instance, received multiple scholarships, including the Annie B. Cherry Scholarship. Another standout is Ian, who received the Ike Skelton Early Commissioning Scholarship. Furthermore, some students have been granted full funding through Atrium Health’s Rise to Success Program.

During the ceremony, each student was recognized with certificates and chords, and the senior superlatives, chosen by their peers, provided a fun and insightful moment to get to know the students better.

As they move forward, these seniors leave a legacy of determination and success, poised to make a meaningful impact in their respective fields.