The Gooey-Gory Girl Finds Her Vocation

tonya burney

Medical records, referrals, front desk, ORPCE . . . You name it; Tonya Burney has done it.

In 2012, after eight years of working at Southern Regional AHEC, Tonya found a permanent home in health careers.

“Moving into health careers is the best choice I could have made,” she avowed. “I have these students’ best interest at heart, because if I’d had something like this, I wouldn’t have waited until I was 30 to get a degree.”

Tonya, who started working at Southern Regional AHEC as a student in healthcare administration, is now the Director of Health Careers and Workforce Diversity. But her students refer to her by a different name.

The Gooey-Gory Girl.

Because if it can be preserved or dissected, Tonya is going to bring it to a classroom and make a lesson out of it. Just in the past few months, her students have dissected a sheep brain, a chicken wing, and pregnant rats.

dissecting to learn at southern regional ahec
Students in the TEACH program at Southern Regional AHEC participate in a dissection.

“My main goal in health careers is to give the young people an idea of how rewarding a health profession is,” shared Tonya. “A lot of them don’t really understand that you don’t always have to be a doctor or a nurse. When I go into the schools, I ask the students what they’re interested in. Some say art; a lot of them say sports. I ask them, if you don’t make it in the pros, what are you going to do after that. They don’t know! I show them the physicians, the physical therapists who work with the pro teams. I point the students who like to draw toward medical illustration. I tell them, you’re still in what you love, but you’re making money and you have a medical degree.”

Tonya said this year has been the busiest she’s seen. Many of Tonya’s past students are excellent word-of-mouth advertisers. Oneof her former students, Tongelah Parkins, graduated from UNC Charlotte with a master’s degree in sports management last year and will obtain her PhD in sports administration this May. Tongelah has been spreading the word that, without the AHEC health careers system, she wouldn’t have known what she wanted to do.

Tonya said another former student, Nakaya Melvin, who is also a current NC AHEC Scholar at Eastern AHEC in Greenville, has been a real advocate for her. Both of Nakaya’s siblings are participating in the TEACH program due to their sister’s encouragement, which has sparked an overwhelming interest in the program. “Students are already applying for our TEACH program that starts in October!” Tonya exclaimed.

TEACH, Teaching Excellence for a Career in Health, is a nine-month, pre-professional health enrichment program for students in grades eight through twelve. TEACH serves as an integral component in the North Carolina health education pipeline, significantly impacting the number of underrepresented students entering health fields in the region.

Last year, Tonya had 42 students enrolled in TEACH—17 who graduated. She was worried her classroom would be empty this year. “But things are really booming,” she laughed. It turns out that, much like Nakaya Melvin, those 17 students have brothers and sisters, cousins and friends. So now, Tonya has more than 50 students eagerly awaiting the start of the program in October.

Tonya said she is most passionate about reaching all the students. She sets goals for herself, that she’s going to get at least three students from each of Southern Regional AHEC’s nine counties to enroll in TEACH. “I want every student to know about the program—if you don’t want to participate, I understand. But I don’t want it to be that you didn’t participate because you didn’t know.”

health careers at southern regional ahec
Students in the TEACH program at Southern Regional AHEC

Tonya serves on three school boards and is active in Health Occupations Students of America (HOSA). Every week, she is out there, visiting a school, partnering with other programs, leveraging AHEC’s health careers budget to build collaborations that fill a need in the schools.

For example, in May, she’s collaborating with Southview High School’s HOSA program. She invited practice support coaches and mental health professionals from Southern Regional AHEC to speak to the high school students about what they do, broadening their horizons by introducing them to the wide spectrum of health careers.

In April, Tonya took 40 students from all nine of Southern Regional AHEC’s counties to UNC Chapel Hill for Health Careers on the Hill, a biannual collaboration with UNC’s North Carolina Health Careers Access Program. Southern Regional AHEC health careers programs also include Youth Health Service Corps and NC AHEC Scholars.

“But my brain child is HUMP Day,” Tonya said. HUMP Day, which stands for Helping Students Understand Medical Professions, is a one-day, hands-on workshop at Campbell University. Students participate in breakout sessions on radiology, ob/gyn, ENT, emergency and rescue and gain insight into the medical school admissions process. And, most of the time, Tonya makes arrangements with Harnett County’s EMTs, who land a helicopter on the field for an interactive rescue simulation.

Tonya also helps her students shadow health professionals. “I have three students who went over to Cape Fear Valley Medical Center yesterday to shadow medical administrators—they did that for three hours as volunteer work. Those are the types of things I’m always setting up.

“AHEC provides these students with opportunities they wouldn’t have had if this position didn’t exist,” insisted Tonya. “I love AHEC, and I love working here. I have this joke about how I’m not going to retire. I’m going to see it through to the end. They’ll be wheeling me out of here.”

Staying true to her moniker as the Gooey-Gory Girl, Tonya added that, next year, they’re putting funeral services on the TEACH curriculum. “In past sessions, the students got to watch an embalming, and they’ve asked for that again.”

More about NC AHEC Health Careers, Workforce Diversity & Inclusion

NC AHEC identifies gaps in the educational pipeline and fosters interest and diversity in health careers, increasing the number of students who successfully pursue careers in allied health, dentistry, medicine, mental health, nursing, pharmacy, public health, and other emerging healthcare professions. Visit to learn more about health careers opportunities at NC AHEC.