JOHNSON CITY - Being the first East Tennessee State University pharmacy student to don a white coat may have been the luck of the alphabet, but Sarah Adams was proud to be first in line Monday.
"It's just a very big honor," Adams said after the ceremony recognizing the new ETSU College of Pharmacy's official opening at the D.P. Culp University Center.
"Words can't describe it. They really can't. It's just unbelievable."
The former high school biology teacher was one of 72 students to put on the coats symbolizing their status as members of the school's inaugural class. A Kingsport native, Adams set out to make the career change after Gov. Phil Bredesen pledged his support for ETSU's pharmacy school proposal on March 17, 2005.
"When the governor came to make the announcement a couple of years ago, that's when I saw it on the news, and I was really excited about it," Adams said.
"I think it's a wonderful opportunity for everybody in this area that ETSU has a pharmacy school.
"I've always had an interest in the health field, but I love this area. I love the mountains, and I couldn't see myself living anywhere else. I am just so glad that we have a pharmacy school here now."
As Dean Larry Calhoun and local pharmacist Guy Wilson slipped the coats over the students' shoulders, the governor was on hand to see his advocacy to fruition on Monday. Earlier, in his remarks, Bredesen asked students to be mindful of the community effort that brought the school to ETSU.
"A lot of people worked hard to get you here today," Bredesen said. "Just as East Tennessee believed in this school, we believe in you and what you're going to accomplish."
When Bredesen endorsed ETSU's bid to operate a pharmacy school without state funding via tuition and private donations, he challenged the university to raise $5 million by the time state governing panels considered ETSU's application that summer and another $2.5 million by the time the school opened for classes. ETSU met both goals well ahead of his deadlines.
"I think this has gotten off to a very, very good start," Bredesen said in a news conference after Monday's ceremony. "The community up here had said it was supportive. I asked them to show that support to make sure that it really was here, and it certainly was.
"I think this is going to be a very successful school and really a new model for how some of these professional schools might develop across the country."
Cocke County resident Jason Frisbee, who at 20 was among the youngest students to enroll in the class, had lobbied Bredesen and the Tennessee Higher Education Commission to support ETSU's bid for a pharmacy school and reject the University of Tennessee's opposition.
"I called the governor and all the THEC members back when the big debate was happening between ETSU and UT," he said. "I called the governor's office several times and all the council members trying to push for ETSU, knowing where the shortage (of pharmacists) was in East Tennessee."
Frisbee planned to help fill that shortage and fulfill the college's rural education mission by working in the region after graduation in 2010.
"I'll probably end up going back home to Cocke County and working or in one of the surrounding areas," he said. "I definitely am staying in East Tennessee though. Even if I had gone (to pharmacy school) somewhere else, I still wanted to come back here to East Tennessee and work."
When ETSU launched the effort in 2004, Tennessee was importing some 300 pharmacists each year from other states as pharmacies in rural areas struggled to fill slots. This region's students were underrepresented at the state's sole pharmacy school at UT's campus in Memphis, and many of those who did attend pharmacy school were going out of state.
As expected, the vast majority of students in ETSU's inaugural class - 68 students or 94 percent - hail from Tennessee and bordering states.
"It means a whole lot," Johnson City resident Seth Humphreys said of the local opportunity to attend pharmacy school. "This was my first choice and my only choice. I told them (admissions committee members), â€˜You'll have to beat me off with a stick. If I don't get in now, I'll keep coming back until I finally get in.' So, this is where I want to be.
"It would have been tough to move, because I have my family and I have a house here. It would have been tough to pick up and start somewhere else."
Humphreys, 30, had been working with children in the social work field when he applied to pharmacy school.
"I decided I wanted to kind of change my direction, and it's been a blessing and answered prayers for the school to open and to be a part of the first class."
Humphreys plans to remain here after completing his pharmacy degree. His exact career path is unsettled.
"I want to get in and look at all the options. I'd be just as happy working for retail as I would a pharmaceutical company," he said. "I just want to get in and dig in the books and see which direction the doors open up."
Classmate Matthew Hobbs had a similar outlook.
"I'm not sure what kind of pharmacist I want to be," he said. "I'll probably find out the last year of rotations. I don't want to say one way or the other right now."
Having recently completed a chemistry degree, Hobbs said the development of ETSU's program was a major factor in his career choice, for he wanted to stay near home.
"I was actually interested in medical school my first couple of years in college. But early in my junior year, I realized I wanted to go on to pharmacy," he said.
Pharmacy students will begin three days of orientation sessions today. Classes will begin Jan. 16.