The holiday season offers everyone in the Western Carolina University family an opportunity to spend quality time with friends and relatives, to take a well-deserved break from the rigors of our academic pursuits and work, and to recharge our batteries before we head into the spring semester. The approach of yet another January also prompts us to reflect both on the highlights of the year that is coming to a close and on the opportunities inherent in the year ahead. It is a time to celebrate the positive differences the university makes in the lives of our students, the strong connections we have forged with our community and region, and the lasting relationships we have built with our alumni and friends.

For Western Carolina, 2012 will go down in the record books – literally – as a year to remember. Total student enrollment in the fall topped 9,600 for the first time in WCU history, thanks to an increase of nearly 3 percent in the size of the freshman class and an uptick in our freshman-to-sophomore retention rate. When the dust settled, our total headcount enrollment was at 9,608. With more than 51,000 inquiries already pouring in from prospective students for the 2013 freshman class and with our plans for strategic enrollment growth, I am sure our friends in the Office of Undergraduate Admission are among those ready for the holiday break!

It’s not just about quantity, though. It’s also about quality. The average high school weighted grade-point average for fall’s freshman class is 3.63, up slightly from last year’s overall freshman class GPA of 3.60. When students arrive better prepared for rigorous academic pursuits, they tend to stay with us – hence our improved retention numbers! We also have received independent validation of our increasing academic quality. The latest edition of the U.S. News & World Report “Best Colleges” guidebook includes WCU among the top 15 public regional universities in the South. The Princeton Review once again lists our College of Business among the nation’s best schools at which to earn a master’s degree in business administration. And our online graduate programs in project management and human resources are ranked “best buys” in terms of quality and affordability by the consumer advocacy group GetEducated.com.

Of course, 2012 always will have a special place in my heart because it is the year of my official installation as Western Carolina chancellor. Susan and I truly feel blessed to be a part of this extraordinary university and this wonderful community, full of caring people and located in one of the most gorgeous places on Earth. You have made us feel welcome, and we look forward to working with you as we seize the opportunities awaiting us in 2013 – and beyond.

Finally, while the holidays are a time for celebration and introspection, they also are a season for giving. As I mentioned in my installation address in the spring, Western Carolina has made raising funds for endowed scholarships a top philanthropic priority in order to enable us to meet our time-honored commitments to student access and student success. In this difficult economic climate, too many students simply cannot afford the cost of higher education, even at an institution as affordable as ours. I invite you to join others who are giving back to the university, and to take advantage of the tax benefits that come with year-end charitable giving – all in support of the outstanding students who call Western Carolina home. For more information, visit the website give.wcu.edu.

You are part of Western Carolina, and I trust that you share my pride and belief in the future of our university.

Susan and I offer our best wishes for a wonderful holiday season.

David O. Belcher, Chancellor