My home among the hills prior to moving to the Pittsburgh, Pa. area may be different from what you picture of West Virginia.

For almost 30 years, I lived in the “high-tech corridor,” an area that stretches from Morgantown— home of West Virginia University, my alma mater—to Clarksburg and Bridgeport, where I grew up, an hour south.

This corridor is home to NASA, the FBI’s Criminal Justice Information Systems facility, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Mylan Labs, the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory, and many other research and development sites in the area, all with quick access to the primary north-west highway in the state, I-79.

I grew up as the daughter of a pharmacist at a high school where at least three-quarters of my classmates went on to attend college immediately after graduation. Furthering my education wasn’t a question. Goals and achievements were drilled into us from a young age.

However, much of the state is as you may imagine: rolling hills dotted with stately forests, streams trickling into rivers and waterfalls…hiking, skiing, white water rafting. Most of West Virginia is rural, and with this peaceful scenery comes the health and educational issues common to many rural areas across the United States.

West Virginia’s population has one of the lowest percentages of college degrees and one of the highest percentages of obesity-related illnesses—like osteoarthritis or diabetes. Hence, it was in the state’s best interest to encourage the native rural population to achieve higher education within healthcare fields, with the hope that relationships built within the community during their education would encourage students to return to rural areas as professionals.

Twenty years ago, a program with that ideal began radically changing how students in rural West Virginia communities are encouraged to pursue higher education.

This program, housed at West Virginia University, has reached out to rural communities from the high tech corridor—moving educational mountains to reach isolated pockets of the population.

It has successfully worked to combat both the low percentage of high school graduates matriculating to higher education and the higher instance of health issues found in rural areas.

The West Virginia University School of Medicine began the Health Sciences & Technology Academy (HSTA) in 1994 to help rural minority students interested in and capable of obtaining careers in health care fields achieve their goals.

HSTA officials selected high school freshman based on interest, potential, and need for the opportunity to participate in the program. Those choosing to join the after-school club must maintain a B average, participate in HSTA summer camps and club activities, and adhere to policies designed to keep them on a path toward their chosen career.

Research projects are among the most important aspects of the program, as well as meeting the academic rigor, which increases each year a student participates.

HSTA students focus on health sciences-based activities that relate to the considerable health issues faced by their rural communities in West Virginia.

Participants are primarily young women from rural communities and are first in their families to attend college. More than half are financially disadvantaged, and one-third are African American.

West Virginia University School of Dentistry recruiter Franklin Hairston connects with a student at HSTA’s 2016 college fair.

Why the focus on minorities in rural areas?

While working with underprivileged college students, Dr. Ann Chester, who developed and directs the HSTA program, learned that many of their peers had eliminated college as an option early-on because of personal, financial, and social challenges.

This knowledge helped her build HSTA’s foundation of mentoring—support and encouragement that also provides role models for the students, who frequently lack healthcare professionals to look up to as models of success.

In the early days of HSTA, Chester noted that students learned health-based science and research skills quicker when they participated in practical projects that directly impacted their family and friends, so she made this a major part of the curriculum.

Community-based research projects—where students survey and educate their own community about health issues—encourage support from students’ families and friends and make them an active part of the students’ success.

Focusing on health-related issues that match the students’ interests helps them gain confidence, develop research skills, and improve health literacy and practices within their communities.

Students who are part of HSTA learn and hang out together. They become friends and provide encouragement. The “vibe of their tribe” improves drastically when they are around others who achieve, making them inclined to do so themselves.

The communities where HSTA students live are accustomed to students interacting with them, asking questions, learning, and being a part of their lives.

The residents care about the students’ success, and the research and support system HSTA provides has already helped increase the number of healthcare professionals in the state while cultivating lasting relationships within communities.

For this reason, the program also boasts an unlikely benefit: it has become a plug-and-play network for researchers to reach rural areas with questions and education.

Here’s just one story.

Few participants were available to work with Dr. Alicia Zbehlik’s team, which was researching occurrence and knowledge of osteoarthritis at a hospital near Dartmouth College in Hanover, NH. A small sample group and no way to access more participants stalled the research.

When Zbehlik discussed her predicament with Chester at a conference, Chester suggested that Zbehlik partner with HSTA to achieve her desired sample base.

Zbehlik agreed to the collaboration, hoping for another 100 responses to her survey. In just 9 months, the HSTA students brought in 1,129 quality responses from 17 counties in West Virginia.

The relationship that HSTA had built within the communities meant that the residents felt comfortable with the researchers and were more willing to answer survey questions. While the HSTA students gathered responses from across the state of West Virginia, they also educated themselves and their communities about proper osteoarthritis care.

Participating in studies like this partnership with Dartmouth College provides HSTA students with valuable experience. When students finish this program, they are better equipped to attend and complete college, and their tuition is waived at any West Virginia state-supported college or university or health profession school through a Ph.D. or MD level. This enables them to complete intensive education programs without the burden of tuition debt.

From 1998 through 2014, more than 2,000 HSTA students—80% of whom are women—graduated from the program and went on to attend college and major in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields at much higher rates than the general state or national populations.

Of the HSTA students who graduated with a four-year degree or higher, 64% have gone into health and other STEM majors. The program has already yielded medical doctors, osteopaths, dentists, pharmacists, audiologists, psychologists, physical therapists, optometrists, and physician’s assistants.

Many of these successful students may not have attended college at all without HSTA supporting their development and goals. Even better, 90% of HSTA graduates decide to remain at home, often in the very communities that helped make their education possible.

To say that this program is ground-breaking is an understatement.

HSTA is changing how students can immerse themselves in training for a profession, how people in rural communities view health care professionals and researchers, and how researchers can connect with communities to quickly learn about and address health issues.

Most importantly, it’s changing how young women view their strengths and ability to achieve and impact the world.

For more information about HSTA or partnership, please contact Dr. Ann Chester at achester@hsc.wvu.edu or 1-304-293-1026