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Highmark gift to aid medical students at WCCC

| Saturday, March 15, 2014, 12:01 a.m.

John Wheelus has his eye on the prize — a job at a local hospital — at the end of his studies for an associate degree in nursing from Westmoreland County Community College.

Wheelus, 31, of North Huntingdon joked on Friday that “you may not be sure nursing is for you, especially after that first bed bath,” but he's sure it's the right fit for him.

He said a $50,000 gift presented Friday to WCCC from Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield might go a long way in helping him land a job that's close to home when he graduates in May.

The gift will fund a career coach project to help the 1,600 WCCC students enrolled in medical programs, including nursing, dental hygiene, magnetic resonance imaging, phlebotomy and radiology technology, connect with regional employers.

“This will give us more options. We don't always know what is available out there as far as job openings,” Wheelus said.

Dan Onorato, executive vice president with Highmark, presented the check to President Dr. Daniel J. Obara during a program in the school's Science Hall.

“WCCC plays an important role in training talent we keep right here in Western Pennsylvania,” Onorato said.

“With this grant, we will be strengthening the bonds between young people gaining valuable educations at WCCC and the employers in the four-county area who need their talents to deliver excellent health care,” Onorato said.

Onorato said Highmark saw the benefits of matching students with employers and noted 95 percent of WCCC's graduates remain in the region.

A career coach can help students make the “correct academic decisions” while in school and assist with the job search, said Dr. Kathleen Malloy, health professional/natural sciences dean.

“A huge challenge faced by students in the nursing program is balancing the last semester of school and wondering, ‘Where will I find my first job, and will it be a good match?' ” said Dr. Ruth Irwin, director of nursing.

The contribution was in support of WCCC's recent capital campaign, which raised more than $31 million. Those funds will be used for construction and equipment of the Latrobe Center, renovation of and equipment for the Advanced Technology Center at the former Sony plant, biology lab renovations and upgrades to the main campus nursing lab and a student scholarship endowment.

Mary Pickels is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-836-5401 or mpickels@tribweb.com.

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