By Bill Studenc
As Western Carolina University’s groundbreaking emergency medical care program peers ahead toward the 50th anniversary of its founding, a pair of alumni from its formative years have established endowed scholarship funds totaling nearly $55,000 to help future students pursue their passion of helping others during times of crisis.
Separate gifts from Gibsonville resident Rhonda L. Summers, a 1978 graduate of WCU’s EMC program, and Raleigh resident Joseph R. Zalkin, a 1981 graduate, will provide scholarship support beginning this fall to two WCU students annually majoring in emergency medical care.
Summers, a physician assistant in Alamance County and the first female to earn a bachelor’s degree in emergency medical care at WCU, established the Summers Emergency Medical Care Scholarship Fund in 2021. A year later, Zalkin, former deputy director of Wake County Emergency Medical Services, made gifts creating the Joseph R. Zalkin Emergency Medical Care Endowed Scholarship Fund.
Both scholarships will provide financial support for juniors or seniors from North Carolina majoring in emergency medical care with a demonstrated interest in pursuing EMC or a related profession as a career.
“Scholarships such as these remove barriers to an excellent education and meaningful professional career as a paramedic that a student might otherwise be unable to achieve,” said Ericka Zimmerman, director of WCU’s School of Health Sciences.
“Scholarships literally change the lives and paths of our students, and once a paramedic, they do the same working in our communities – saving lives and giving back to the community,” Zimmerman said. “To have our alumni give back to our program through endowed scholarships reaffirms the impact the emergency medical care program has on our students, alumni and the community. We value and honor the legacy they leave through these scholarships.”
For Summers and Zalkin, the act of giving back was a matter of helping the next generation of graduates of the first baccalaureate EMC program in the nation when founded in 1976.
In fact, Summers was among a small group from a student ambulance team who successfully lobbied for development of a four-year degree program in emergency care at WCU. “When I entered WCU, I knew what I wanted to do with my life. I just didn’t know how to get there. I knew the nursing program was not my answer because I wanted prehospital training and care,” she said.
Summers was walking one afternoon in 1975 from Helder Residence Hall to Moore Hall, then home to WCU’s health-related programs, when she noticed an ambulance parked next to the building. “There was a sign announcing the next first aid class, which was a requirement to volunteer for the ambulance. I was in the instructor’s office the next day. I began riding on the ambulance and continued to learn,” she said.
By the next year, WCU’s EMC program was up and running, and attracting students from across the state – Zalkin among them.
“I was enrolled at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington and volunteering at the local rescue squad when I learned of the EMC program at WCU, the first in the nation,” Zalkin said. “Some refer to the Murphy-to-Manteo crosspatch of North Carolina. Mine was a Wrightsville Beach-to-Cullowhee experience.”
Both Zalkin and Summers point to childhood experiences as instrumental in their interest in emergency care.
“My first exposure was during a middle school health class taught by the training officer of Guilford County EMS. He demonstrated mouth-to-mouth ventilation on a manikin. I was intrigued by what a career looked like in EMS,” Zalkin said. “This was the early days of the profession. The ‘Emergency!’ TV program was fresh on the air. Greensboro and Guilford County were advancing care in the community. Later in high school, there was a ride-along program at Guilford EMS. I was hooked.”
Summers said that she doesn’t think she picked paramedicine as her profession; rather, emergency medicine picked her.
“It was that feeling of helplessness and ‘how can I help’ that took over every time there was a situation that could alter someone’s life. The first time, I was in the second grade and a girl was choking. Everyone was screaming and the teacher was not in the room. I didn’t know what to do, but I ran to get help. She lived, but not because I knew what to do to help her,” Summers said. “There were other accidents during high school that also made me think that I wanted to be part of the solution and not sit by doing nothing.”
While still enrolled at WCU, Summers applied for a physician assistant school developed in the Hickory area to teach in a rural community. She was accepted in 1978 and graduated in 1980, and she has worked for more than 42 years in the field, currently at Alamance Regional Medical Center.
During Zalkin’s senior year at WCU, he worked part-time in the city of Atlanta and became credentialed in Georgia as an advanced emergency medical technician. After graduation, he began working as a mobile intensive care technician in McDowell County, then was hired as the first training officer at Wake County EMS in November 1981. He retired from Wake County 35 years later as deputy director and chief in 2016.
He is currently executive director of the Wake EMS Foundation, a nonprofit organization supporting research, historical and educational programming regarding emergency medical services in North Carolina; executive director of the National Association of EMS Physicians-North Carolina State Chapter; and a part-time management consultant for Guilford County EMS. “One might say that I have failed at retirement,” said Zalkin, who also has been an active member of WCU’s emergency medical care alumni group.
Establishment of endowed scholarship funds for students at WCU has given Zalkin and Summers reason to reflect on their careers.
“Forty-six years later, here we are,” Zalkin said. “I have saved lives and I have taught others to save lives. I have watched and participated in the development of modern systems of care and prepared the next generations of paramedics and physicians that will lead and provide guidance and oversight. I got to have a seat at the table for 46 years and counting.”
“Establishing a scholarship for the EMC program at WCU was a goal that I set for myself years ago,” Summers said. “How many universities do you know take the time to listen to a student, create a program, a major and a bachelor’s degree based on your dream job? That is exactly what happened. To say I want to pay it forward is too cliché. I want to help students who share my passion for emergency medicine and continue improving the future of emergency medical services.”
Jackson Déziel, director of WCU’s EMC program, can speak firsthand about the impact of scholarship support. A 2006 graduate of the program, Déziel received a merit scholarship and a scholarship from the North Carolina Association of Rescue and EMS, which he characterized as invaluable to his educational journey.
“Financial support is vital for student success. Students are then able to fully focus on their coursework and clinical rotations by removing the stressful burden of everyday expenses,” he said. “Our alumni are fantastic and actively involved with the EMC program. Their continued support of EMC students places our commitment to community and the field of prehospital care on full display.”
For more information on creating an endowed or annual scholarship fund to help students pursue their higher education goals, contact the WCU Division of Advancement at 828-227-7124 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit give.wcu.edu.