By Brooklyn Brown
Western Carolina University recently hosted the MedCaT summer camp, a weeklong program for Native American and Appalachian high school students interested in pursuing a career in health or biomedicine.
Madison Leatherwood, an enrolled member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, WCU alumna and director of programming for the Center for Native Health, led the summer program alongside Lisa Lefler, associate professor and director of the Culturally-Based Native Health program at WCU.
Leatherwood attended MedCaT in high school, worked in college as a mentor and an intern for the program, and now she is running the programming at WCU.
“MedCaT has been a huge part of my life,” Leatherwood said. “I’ve loved every second of it. After I graduated from WCU in 2021, the people who were running it told me that I basically know the program inside and out and they thought it would be in good hands with me. So, I interviewed, got the job and it's been one of the most rewarding things I think I could have done.”
MedCaT is a comprehensive one-week summer academy for 25 high school students held at either Wake Forest University or WCU. This year, WCU hosted extensive programming including a cultural campus tour and visit to Judaculla Rock, dementia, trauma and birthing simulations, an Asheville Tourists baseball game, a medicine walk with former Cherokee language program director Tom Belt, Cherokee elder Onita Bush and Stephanie Kiser, director of rural health at the UNC School Of Pharmacy, and more.
The camp had planned a visit to the Watauga Mound with Sequoyah Distinguished Professor Brett Riggs and associate professor Jane Eastman at their archaeological dig site where they are uncovering Cherokee astronomical history, but weather did not permit it. Some students requested that Lelfer take them another day.
“We're hopefully going to arrange to have five or six students come out and we'll have a kind of a special session. That, to me, is so encouraging that they take such an interest,” Lefler said.
Leatherwood and Lefler want their MedCaT students to see a future in health or medicine, even if they are not interested in primary care.
“We work with six local high schools – Cherokee, Swain, Smoky Mountain, Robbinsville, Murphy and Andrews,” Leatherwood said. “The goal is to get students interested in health care and to show them that there's more than just doctors and nurses. If you have a special interest in technology or social work, there are avenues that you can take where you can still be in a helping role in health care and not have to deal with the blood and guts.”
“MedCaT is just a good program overall to help our kids get the confidence they need to know that they can go to college, and they can meet people and they can have long-term friendships and meaningful careers,” Lefler said. “These are meaningful careers where you're serving one another and that service is part of our cultural values.”