Lydia Elliot (right), coordinator of Western Carolina University’s master’s degree program for family nurse practitioners, works with graduate student Alberto Rodriquez in the program’s nursing skills lab at WCU’s site at Biltmore Park. Photo courtesy of Western Carolina University.

Press release from Western Carolina University, shared Nov. 6:

Lydia Elliot (right), coordinator of Western Carolina University’s master’s degree program for family nurse practitioners, works with graduate student Alberto Rodriquez in the program’s nursing skills lab at WCU’s site at Biltmore Park. The program was recently awarded a federal grant to help fund the program’s efforts to boost primary health-care providers in the region. Photo courtesy of Western Carolina University.

CULLOWHEE – Western Carolina University’s School of Nursing is the recipient of nearly $700,000 in federal grant funding to help address a shortage of primary health-care providers in Western North Carolina.

The Health Resources and Services Administration of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is awarding $349,877 annually over a two-year period to increase student enrollment in WCU’s specialized master’s degree program for family nurse practitioners.

The funding will be used to support second- and third-year graduate students in the university’s FNP program by providing up to $11,000 annually to each student to help defray the cost of education, including assistance with the cost of tuition, fees, books and reasonable living expenses.

Linda Comer, interim associate dean of WCU’s College of Health and Human Sciences, wrote the grant application out of her concern for a lack of qualified care providers in the rural mountain counties of North Carolina.

“This shortage is a trend that threatens to decrease the access to quality health care in our region,” said Comer. “Family nurse practitioners are increasingly needed to fill this gap. There is a need for primary care providers across the country, but the need in rural North Carolina is especially pressing.”

Family nurse practitioners are qualified, cost-effective primary care providers who can help meet the anticipated increases in demand for health care providers in rural areas, Comer said. The WCU School of Nursing FNP program uses clinical training sites in rural and under-served areas of WNC, offering educational and training opportunities to advanced graduate students and providing critical care to disadvantaged citizens of the region, she said.

Studies show that more than 90 percent of graduates of family nurse practitioner programs remain in their home communities after graduation, said Marie Huff, interim dean of WCU’s College of Health and Human Sciences.

“Because students in our family nurse practitioner program come predominantly from the 16 westernmost counties of North Carolina, they also are expected to stay close to home after graduation,” Huff said. “We need more primary care providers to help meet the health care needs of this region, including a rapidly growing population of older adults. Western North Carolina has become a popular destination for retirees who are living longer and who need access to qualified health care professionals.”

A larger pool of family nurse practitioners in WNC also will help address other unique health care needs of the region, including oral care, psychiatric care, obesity and diabetes management, she said.

The master’s degree program in family nurse practitioner is among the programs of study offered by WCU at its recently opened site at Biltmore Park, where more than 500 students reported for classes earlier this fall semester.

WCU’s Programs at Biltmore Park is located in approximately 25,000 square feet of space at 28 Schenck Parkway in Biltmore Park Town Square, just off Interstate 26 at exit 37 between Asheville and Hendersonville. The site includes a high-fidelity patient simulation laboratory for nurse anesthesia students and a nursing skills lab featuring a simulated hospital and outpatient care environment to allow nursing students to learn basic and advanced skills.

For more information about the FNP master’s degree, contact Jessica Shirley, director of student services for WCU’s School of Nursing, at (828) 654-6506 office or

For more information about all programs offered by WCU at Biltmore Park, visit the website or contact Pasty Miller, director of WCU’s Programs at Biltmore Park, at (828) 654-6498 or

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Angie Newsome is the executive director and editor of Carolina Public Press. Contact her at (828) 774-5290 or e-mail her at

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