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Health disparities, medical scare fuel WCU students’ passion for pharmaceutical care

Madeline Tyson and Lisbet Alvarez

Madeline Tyson (left) and Lisbet Alvarez

By Julia Duvall

Before Western Carolina University students Madeline Tyson and Lisbet Alvarez had even thought about applying to college, they knew they wanted to be pharmacists. 

“I knew I wanted to go to an in-state institution, not only because of scholarship requirements, but I wanted somewhere near the mountains and a small community to be part of,” Tyson said. “Western has been the perfect fit for me, especially with the Early Assurance Program that has allowed me to apply and be accepted into pharmacy school.” 

The Early Assurance Program is a partnership between WCU and UNC – Chapel Hill that will run through 2027, with an option to renew. The program is not only a means for WCU to increase its undergraduate enrollment, but it will also allow UNC’s Eshelman School of Pharmacy to attract students from Western North Carolina. 

WCU is the fourth UNC System school to partner with the Eshelman School of Pharmacy, joining Appalachian State University, University of North Carolina at Wilmington and UNC Pembroke. 

madeline tyson

Madeline Tyson

Tyson, a junior majoring in biology from Pinehurst, grew up around health care with her mother being a nurse. 

“I knew I wanted to go into the medical field very early on,” Tyson said. “But the event that made me decide for sure I wanted to be a pharmacist was almost losing my grandmother.” 

Tyson’s grandmother had gone to the emergency room for stomach pain and was admitted to the hospital and prescribed a medication that dialysis patients like her could not take because of life-threatening complications it could cause. 

“When she got home, the complications began and she went into a coma,” Tyson said. “After she went back to the hospital, we found out about the medication error. When the medicine is prescribed, it goes to the hospital’s pharmacy and they are supposed to check the safety of medicines and any interferences that may happen when combined with other medications or treatments. My grandmother survived, but never fully recovered.” 

At that moment Tyson knew she wanted to be a pharmacist and ensure patients and their families did not experience what her family had been through.  

Already knowing what career field she wanted to pursue, Tyson’s college decision was almost as easy, because the mountains of Western North Carolina were calling and Tyson answered with her decision to come to Cullowhee. 

After Tyson graduates from WCU, she will begin her classes at the Eshelman School of Pharmacy in the fall of 2025. 

Tyson credits Darby Harris, adviser and associate instructor for molecular physiology and genetics, for helping her on her journey to becoming a pharmacist. 

“Darby Harris has been so supportive and has really helped guide me through my educational journey at WCU and the application process of pharmacy school,” Tyson said. “I am very appreciative of his support as well as the rest of the WCU faculty.” 

For Alvarez, it was not a medical emergency, but a passion for advocacy against health disparities in the Hispanic community that led her, a senior from Hendersonville majoring in integrated health sciences, to purse pharmacy school. 

Alvarez and her family are of Mexican American descent and she wanted to be an advocate for her family and community and address the healthcare issues they face. 


Lisbet Alvarez

Alvarez was introduced to the pharmacy field during a high school internship at a local compounding pharmacy. 

“The internship was an amazing opportunity to dive into the field,” Alvarez said. “I did not expect to like it as much as I did, but I loved it. I went to Henderson County Early College and realized during my internship that I wanted to pursue a degree in the health care field, specifically pharmaceuticals. I also love chemistry and to combine those two interests was great for me.” 

Alvarez earned her high school diploma and associate’s degree by graduating from the early college and came to WCU in the fall of 2022. 

“I have been involved in the Latinx Appreciation Student Organization during my short time at WCU and I've met a lot of people in my community,” Alvarez said. “It's pretty cool to see how people from different backgrounds have so much in common.”   

As for her plans after graduation, Alvarez, a first-generation college student, wants to make a difference through the opportunities her education has given her. 

“I just want to be part of the solution and bring change,” Alvarez said. “My advisors and professors in the integrated health sciences program were very encouraging of me pursing this path.” 

As for imparting words of wisdom to her fellow Catamounts and incoming students, Alvarez had a few thoughts to share. 

“Being the first one in my family to go to college, I would say to these students and future students to not let the fear of failure keep them from pursuing something great,” she said. “I want to pave the way for my nieces and nephews to do something great also.” 

Jamie Wallen, associate professor and chemistry and physics department head is leading the project. 

“The new agreement between WCU and the UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy provides an amazing opportunity for our students to pursue a career in pharmacy,” said Wallen. “We are very excited that both Lisbet and Madeline were accepted as our first cohort and we look forward to more WCU students entering into this program. I encourage any student that might be interested in pharmacy to reach out to learn more about this outstanding opportunity.”  

For more information on the Early Assurance Program, contact Wallen at 828-227-3667 or 

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