Hendersonville teen on fast track to pharmacy degree
by Chuck Gordon

Even when he skipped ahead a grade, Jackson Hetzler remained at the top of his class. On Monday, the driven, determined teen begins his second year of pharmacy school on Wingate University's Hendersonville campus.

Jackson Hetzler got an early Christmas present in the late fall of his seventh-grade year. Hetzler, who normally made all high A’s in his coursework, was doing B and C work, and one of his teachers at Rugby Middle School in Hendersonville asked what he thought the problem was.

“I’m just bored,” he told her. “It’s not a challenge.”

The teacher suggested that Hetzler skip ahead to eighth grade when school was back in session after the new year. Hetzler was all for it, petitioned the school board to jump to eighth and was granted his request. He wound up acing his eighth-grade classes.

It wouldn’t be the last time Hetzler would leapfrog his school peers. By the time he was 16, in the fall of his senior year, he needed just two classes to graduate from high school. So he arranged his schedule so that he could take two classes at Blue Ridge Community College.

Three years later, Hetzler already has an associate degree and a year of pharmacy school under his belt. And he just turned 19 in June.

While most other students his age are still early in their undergraduate careers, Hetzler is beginning his second year in the Wingate University School of Pharmacy program in Hendersonville on Monday. He is on track to graduate with a Doctor of Pharmacy degree in the spring of 2021, at the ripe old age of 21.

Finding a way

Hetzler’s laser-like focus on becoming a pharmacist is typical of his academic career so far. As a young teen, Hetzler was challenged to start figuring out what he wanted to do with his life.

“I was 14, the summer before my junior year, right after school had ended,” he says. “My mom walked in and said, ‘Hey, you need to decide what you’re going to do so we can get stuff going.’ I’m 14 and I need to decide what I’m going to do for the rest of my life, right?”

Wingate pharmacy student Jackson Hetzler

He considered his strengths – math, a quick grasp of complex concepts, a desire to help others – and hit upon pharmacy as a potential career. Soon after, he found out about Wingate University’s Hendersonville campus, and that quickly became the goal.

But it wasn’t easy. After graduating from high school a year and a half early, Hetzler dove head-first into community-college life. He took a full course load at Blue Ridge Community College in the spring of 2016, when he was 16 years old, and then some summer-school classes. He set his sights on earning his associate degree in the spring of 2017 so he could enter Wingate’s School of Pharmacy in Hendersonville that fall.

Hetzler knew he needed four science prerequisites – General Chemistry 1 and 2, and Organic Chemistry 1 and 2 – but didn’t realize they were typically taken in sequential order, over four semesters, meaning it would be three more semesters before he could finish.

“I had only one done, and I only had two semesters left in order to apply to Wingate,” Hetzler says. “I needed three more. That was an issue.”

Hetzler was advised not to take General Chemistry 2 and Organic Chemistry 1 in the same semester. He was told: “You’re going to get destroyed.”

“Organic’s known as one of the hardest undergraduate classes you can take,” Hetzler says.

Determined to enroll at Wingate in 2017, Hetzler drove to Asheville-Buncombe Technical College, 45 minutes away from his Hendersonville home, and begged the head of the science department to let him double up. Hetzler was again advised against it. He was told: “Nobody’s ever done that before. I’ll have to have a higher-up to sign off on it.”

AB Tech relented, and Hetzler aced the class. “It worked out,” he says. “I got an A in that organic course.”

Changing the industry

That left Hetzler with 18 hours’ worth of prerequisites to take to get into pharmacy school. But he was this close to earning an associate degree on top of that, so he signed up for 24 hours’ worth of classes. “I was like, I’m not going to take 40 hours and then be two classes short,” he says. “I’m 17 taking 24 credit hours at a community college.”

Such determination has served him well at WUSOP Hendersonville. Hetzler is aware of an age gap with his peers but sees no reason to dwell on it. “I’m the only one in the whole school who’s not 21, 22,” he says. “I fit right in. Doesn’t bother me at all.”

"If I can find something that changes the field of pharmacy, I can help thousands of people and help make companies money in the process, and everyone comes out happy."

Hetzler says he has a GPA in the high 3’s, and he’s learning to ease up on the schoolwork – just a little – to achieve a better work-life balance.

He’s also beginning to adjust to the pharmacy-school environment. Hetzler says that even though school always came easy to him he doesn’t have a photographic memory – something that would come in handy in any medical-related field of study. “Memorization is actually probably one of my worst aspects academically,” he says. “But last semester I noticed as I was studying that I’m getting better at studying. I can memorize stuff faster. I can understand concepts better.”

Ultimately, Hetzler would like to use those skills to do research of some sort. During his WUSOP interview, he told Kurt Wargo, regional dean of Wingate University Hendersonville, that he really liked helping people and wanted to do something research-based.

“When you’re working as a pharmacist, even in a hospital, you can help one patient at a time,” Hetzler says. “But if I can find something that changes the field of pharmacy, I can help thousands of people and help make companies money in the process, and everyone comes out happy. I said, ‘I want to change the industry at some point.’”

You can bet on that happening sooner rather than later.

Find out more about Wingate’s Hendersonville campus and the School of Pharmacy.

Aug. 19, 2018