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Pharmacy student tackles challenges head-on, earns Armed Forces scholarship

by Chuck Gordon

Over the years, third-year Wingate pharmacy student Howard Gaines has learned several tips and tricks to keep the sentences flowing and the listener engaged.

“Even talking about it sometimes can be a little bit difficult,” he says of a stutter he’s battled since childhood. “I try my best not to even think about it. That helps me not stutter. And then this hand-motion stuff that I do helps me a lot too.”

Gaines gets hung up on words sometimes, but he always plows through to get his point across, and always with a smile on his face. One big way Gaines has tried to mitigate the effects of his stammer is to go full Fear Factor. In a bold move, he ran for president of the School of Pharmacy’s Student Senate this year, and won. He now regularly speaks to groups of 10 to 20 people, and he oversees 14 different organizations.

That fearlessness, alongside his dedication to his academics, has led to an Armed Forces Health Professions Scholarship, which will pay for Gaines’ final two years of pharmacy school and will provide him with a monthly stipend. In return, upon graduation in May of 2021, Gaines will serve at least three years as a pharmacist in the Air Force.

The process for applying to get into the scholarship program was rigorous, with only about 10 percent of students who apply ultimately being accepted.

Howard Gaines in front of Levine College of Health Sciences building

“It was very competitive,” Gaines says. “I knew this was going to be very hard and challenging, but I pulled through.”

Meeting challenges head-on is nothing new to Gaines. The speech impediment he developed in grade school kept him from being fully engaged socially at Victory Christian High School in Charlotte. “The only thing I did was run track and work on my grades,” he says. But he turned a corner as an undergraduate at Wingate. Gaines joined the Black Student Union and ultimately served as its treasurer, and he enjoyed it so much that he also joined the Latino Club and became its treasurer too.

He entered Wingate as a pre-pharmacy major, which meant that he was able to start in the School of Pharmacy without having finished his undergraduate degree. Once in graduate school, he became even more outgoing, culminating in his selection as president of the Student Senate. He also holds board positions in three other organizations and is a member of eight organizations in total.

“I'm very busy, and that’s helped me with time management and even helped me just kind of be able to speak more, because I'm doing a lot of speaking,” Gaines says. “I'm very thankful for that, that I was able to overcome my fear of public speaking, because that ultimately helped my speech therapy.”

“Howard has done a masterful job of facing and overcoming barriers, whether perceived or actual, related to his speech impediment,” says Dr. Kimberly Nealy, Gaines’ advisor and a WUSOP professor. “I was impressed by his transparency and vulnerability about this when he was on a clinical rotation with me this year; he has been incredibly mindful about anticipating any impact that may occur as a result and employing strategies to mitigate this.”

Pharmacy is in Gaines’ blood. His father, Howard C. Gaines Jr., owned a couple of pharmacies in Charlotte for decades, and, between homework assignments after school, his son would watch him at work, patiently serving customers and helping them get well.

It was the helping that stuck with Gaines the most.

“When I was younger, I didn't really know much about patient communication, stuff like that,” he says, “but the one thing I really liked was honestly seeing how such a small tablet can help impact somebody’s quality of life.”

Gaines appears ideally suited to a military setting. Both of his grandfathers served in the Air Force, with one flying planes in Vietnam, and Gaines already carries himself with a professionalism that closely resembles a military bearing, with a side dose of joy.

Nealy’s husband, a clinical social worker who gives presentations on the Wingate campus a couple of times a year, once, unprompted, pointed out how much he liked and was impressed by Gaines.

“Howard’s presentation exceeds our dress-code expectations, he is always kind and respectful, and I have never seen him without a smile on his face,” Nealy says. “Quite frankly, he elevates the energy and mood in the room with his pleasantness.”

After a couple of months of officer’s training in 2021, Gaines will be assigned to an Air Force base. He hopes to ultimately work in a clinical setting – helping doctors and nurses serve individual patients in a hospital – rather than in a retail pharmacy.

But whatever setting the Air Force assigns him to, he’ll make the most of it.

“I want them to put me somewhere where I can get the best benefit out of my experience and learn the most,” he says. “So hopefully they put me somewhere great. It’ll be an adventure. That’s the best thing about life: It’s an adventure.

February 21, 2020