Neither of her parents had gone to college when Amanda Buchanan-Gambill ’06, someone who repeatedly had brought home orphaned dogs and cats, set her heart on becoming a veterinarian. So with their support, the Andrews native participated in a Talent Search program based at Western Carolina University that guides and helps enable students, many from disadvantaged backgrounds, to pursue college education. WCU offered Buchanan-Gambill the most affordable package and a pre-vet program, and she enrolled. She participated in the Honors College, spent long hours in labs and conducted elk research at Great Smoky Mountains National Park. She became the first student from North Carolina’s westernmost county – Cherokee – to be admitted to North Carolina State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine. And when she became a doctor, she and her husband, Andy Gambill ’07, seized the opportunity to come back to Western North Carolina – her to work in her hometown at Andrews Veterinary Hospital and him to teach at WCU, the university the Wilkes County native says “felt like home.”
The story of WCU in the lives of the couple – the story of an affordable, welcoming university in the mountains that helped prepare them to succeed and to serve – is one that has been told into the lives of tens of thousands in the university’s 125-year history. Cullowhee Academy, WCU’s precursor, was founded in 1889 to improve the quality of education in the region and provide higher quality training for teachers who would serve in rural communities. Through the years in response to WNC’s needs, the institution added and revised programs ranging from scientific to cultural, and has emerged as a public comprehensive regional university affiliated with the University of North Carolina system.
In the past 25 years alone, WCU has conferred 42,463 degrees to 41,686 people. Today, WCU’s Alumni Association stays in contact with 20,284 alumni who live in Buncombe, Cherokee, Clay, Haywood, Henderson, Jackson, Macon, Madison, McDowell, Polk, Rutherford, Swain and Transylvania counties alone, with more across the state and beyond. Teresa Williams, chair of the WCU Board of Trustees, also said alumni are involved in work that speaks to the current and future needs of the region and the state. “Our graduates are workforce ready and become contributing citizens and a dynamic force in the communities in which they become involved,” said Williams. In WNC, WCU alumni work in local governments, classrooms, ambulances, medical offices, nursing homes, research and environmental health laboratories, stores, businesses, banks, accounting firms, hotels, nonprofit organizations and other places, and many are doing so in leadership roles, from superintendent to state senator to leader of a sovereign nation – the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.
“When you look almost anywhere in Western North Carolina, from businesses to school systems, you are going to find WCU graduates,” said Tony Johnson ’78 MBA ’80 MPA ’91, executive director of Millennial Initiatives at WCU, which is centered on developing partnerships with government, nonprofit and corporate entities in the region.
In addition to providing high-quality education, university faculty and staff help serve the region conducting research on topics ranging from water quality to poverty; developing publications such as the Regional Outlook Report to assist community leaders; applying for grants to address needs such as expanding WCU’s engineering program or developing mentoring and support to diversify WNC’s nursing workforce; and hosting and participating in regional conferences on topics such as bolstering the hospitality and recreation industry in WNC or improving the mathematical skills of the region’s workforce.
Meanwhile, students join faculty in service in the region to gain hands-on experience through projects such as helping survey the needs of older adults in Swain County; helping develop historical exhibits for WNC institutions such as Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual, the Thomas Wolfe Memorial and Hinton Rural Life Center; and helping business owners and community members in Dillsboro with initiatives from expanding special events to developing a mobile Web application – assistance that was welcomed after a major tourist attraction left town in the midst of a struggling economy. Students and faculty are monitoring water quality through WCU’s Hydrologic Station and conducting research in the national park that is helping protect species and guide policy development.
In addition, units on campus such as the Small Business and Technology Development Center and Center for Rapid Product Realization help engineers, entrepreneurs and others become more efficient, more productive and more successful. The Speech and Hearing Clinic works with people with communication disorders, and a family of programs hosted at Coulter Faculty Commons are focused on cultivating leadership skills in the region. Campus arts and entertainment venues and events such as Mountain Heritage Day and the annual Literary Festival increase the “cultural vibrancy” of the region, said Richard Starnes ’92 MA ’94, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. WCU’s involvement with its home region is so pervasive that the national Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching has extended the Community Engagement Classification to the university.
“Founded 125 years ago to provide educational opportunities for the youth of the mountains of Western North Carolina, Western Carolina has remained true throughout its history to its foundational commitment and charge to serve the people of the region,” said Chancellor David O. Belcher. “Western Carolina is a public institution and proudly owns the obligations, responsibilities and privileges associated with its public mission.”
What began as a teacher training program in the summer has grown into a full College of Education and Allied Professions with educational opportunities for teachers, school counselors and administrators, and degrees at the bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral levels, said Dale Carpenter, dean of the college. Under the leadership of people such as Carl Killian, who became head of the education and psychology department in 1935 and the first dean of the college, WCU gained a reputation as a high-quality institution for preparing the educators of the mountains. Students such as the late Brank Proffitt ’42, who later worked as a teacher, administrator and superintendent, had jobs through Western Carolina that included driving educational films and equipment to schools in the region. Killian also worked to make sure students had more chances to gain experience as student teachers, and supported hosting enrichment programs and classes for children on campus in which university students could be involved. In the 1950s, innovative classes and programs for children who at that time were termed “handicapped” and others labeled as “gifted” were launched, attracting state and national attention.
WCU’s innovative work in the area of special education that continues today was part of what led Carpenter to join WCU’s faculty in 1979. While on campus to interview for the job, he asked Richard Gentry, director of the Reading Center, if he was any good. “I’m damn good,” said Gentry, which drove something home for Carpenter: WCU faculty had the credentials and experience to work anywhere. “They were here because they loved this area,” said Carpenter. They also recognized that their work mattered – that many of their students would teach in WNC, and the quality of their preparation was critical to the quality of education in the area, said Carpenter.
Alisa Chapman, vice president for academic and university programs with the UNC General Administration, said WCU is a primary supplier of new, initially licensed teachers and principals for public schools, especially for schools in the western part of the state. Data from the 2010-11 academic year shows that hundreds of teachers in the farthest WNC counties hold degrees from WCU. Research on the quality of teacher preparation across the UNC system also shows WCU education graduates come into the program with strong credentials and go on to be successful teachers. “WCU does a really good job of balancing quality and quantity – having a high-quality program of preparation for teachers and principals while also working hard to continue to increase the number of teachers that they prepare for our public schools, particularly in the state’s highest need licensure areas, including mathematics, science, middle grades and special education,” said Chapman. “WCU has strong partnerships with public schools, and that’s important for teacher preparation – to have strong preparation programs embedded with clinical practice. WCU is a good example of how we do this in North Carolina.”
In addition, WCU supports all teachers in the region in ways such as special library privileges and partnerships. Hunter Library on campus has more than 100 partnerships in 18 regional school districts to enable teachers to access the on-site Curriculum Materials Center as well as the library’s full collection and electronic databases. Meanwhile, partnerships such as WCU’s work with Farm to School is being turned to as a model by other universities. Faculty, staff and students studying education as well as nutrition and dietetics partnered with the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project and area schools to raise awareness of healthy, locally grown foods. They have helped develop school gardens and hosted cooking demonstrations. Faculty such as Patricia Bricker, associate director of the School of Teaching and Learning, dedicated time to researching and developing curriculum to weave hands-on learning concepts into the activities, such as talking about heat transfer and theorizing why some plants grew more than others based on pH, temperature or other factors.
Marianne Leek ’91 MAT ’01, a Hayesville High School teacher who has won multiple teacher of the year honors and a state award for teaching character education, said for her, teaching is about modeling in her classroom the experience she had at WCU – focusing on creating lasting, meaningful relationships with students and colleagues. Joyce Dugan ’75 MAEd ’81, a member of the WCU Board of Trustees, credits WCU for offering degrees that helped her progress in a career that began as a teacher’s assistant and progressed to included service as superintendent and leadership roles with the Cherokee Central School system. “As a commuter with a family, I would never have been able to earn my degrees had it not been for WCU, and I’m sure this is true for many others,” said Dugan, who also was the first woman to serve as principal chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, a position now held by WCU alumnus Michell Hicks ’87.
Barbara M. Parker MAEd ’87 EdS ’03 EdD ’07, president of Haywood Community College, said when she worked as a principal she was always glad to see WCU graduates apply for teaching positions because they were typically very strong and well-prepared. Parker also said she valued the chance through her own graduate studies at WCU to develop professionally. “Every time I was at Western Carolina – every time you are in an educational setting – you interact with peers and colleagues, and you reflect on your practice and how you can grow,” said Parker. “Having the opportunity to interact with colleagues while furthering my education at Western Carolina gave me the opportunity to reflect on my practice and identify areas for growth. I always found it to be a very stimulating, invigorating environment.”
What WCU’s third president, H.T. Hunter, said in 1941 – “Teacher training, this one thing we do well” – would still be apt today, said Gurney Chambers ’61, retired dean of the College of Education and Allied Professions, if revised to read, “Teacher education, this one thing we continue to do well, along with many other things.” In 1942, the trustees of Western Carolina Teachers College authorized bachelor’s degrees for students not interested in teaching, and a printed announcement in 1950 with photos and information about female and male graduates who had studied business captured the university’s drive to help prepare and launch graduates into fields beyond education. “The young men who attended Western Carolina Teachers College to a great extent are not from wealthy families but know what hard work means and the value of a dollar,” the announcement stated. In 1951, WCTC President Paul A. Reid began a review process with the question “How can Western better serve its region?” In response, an institutional research committee recommended that the curriculum be expanded and the institution’s name be changed. In 1953, WCTC became Western Carolina College, and a report issued 12 years later mapped the college’s future in becoming a “regional university” with a broad curriculum.
Today, WCU serves more than 10,000 students in academic programs that include more than 120 specialties within six undergraduate units and a graduate school. In addition, the Division of Educational Outreach offers distance and online programs, continuing and professional education, military student services, a testing center, children’s camps and conferences. The division’s programs have grown to include a lifelong learning institute, launching this fall, themed “learning is for everyone” and titled LIFE@WesternCarolina. The institute, aimed at helping establish a community of lifelong learners age 50 and over, will feature 12-week sessions with educational lectures, social opportunities and field trips. “The program topics will nourish the mind, spirit and body,” said Provost Alison Morrison-Shetlar.
WCU also has offered programs in the Asheville area since 1937 and moved in 2012 into new space in Biltmore Park Town Square, positioning WCU to better serve the rapidly growing Interstate 26 corridor area between Asheville and Hendersonville. Cohorts of WCU’s master’s degree program in business administration meet at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort as well as at Biltmore Park. Developments off campus include in 1980 the opening of WCU’s Cherokee Center.
N.C. Sen. Tom Apodaca ’80 said WCU’s location at Biltmore Park near the intersection of two interstates is at the epicenter for business development in the region. “It’s crucial that Western plays a part in the development of business in Western North Carolina, even more so than they have in the past,” said Apodaca.
Scott Hamilton, president and CEO of AdvantageWest Economic Development Group, concurred, noting that in 1999 there were about 110,000 people employed in manufacturing in the 23-county region AdvantageWest serves – a region that includes rural and urban parts of WNC. In 2013, there were far fewer manufacturing jobs – about 50,000 – and as jobs are coming back, they are requiring more advanced skills. “Having a university that’s there to help with workforce development and workforce training is going to become critical for those communities to be able to grow and expand, and create the jobs that enhance the economic well-being of their citizens,” said Hamilton.
John F.A.V. Cecil, president of Biltmore Farms, vice chairman of the Board of Directors for the North Carolina Biotechnology Center, and past vice chair of the UNC Board of Governors, said WCU is uniquely positioned to assist WNC businesses with becoming economically viable and sustaining their economic viability. “Our region, once isolated and dependent upon extractive industries, has become entwined with the global economy, and its success is dependent upon having a knowledgeable and well-educated workforce capable of producing quality services and products that are globally competitive,” said Cecil.
Phil Drake, CEO of Drake Enterprises in Franklin and a member of the WCU Board of Trustees, said his company grew from nothing into developing software that serves more than 45,000 tax preparers and certified public accountants across the country and helping file more than 12 million federal and 9 million state tax returns annually. “We would not have been able to grow the way that we have without some of the folks that we have been able to hire from WCU,” said Drake.
Meanwhile, seniors in the College of Business work in concert with the WCU Small Business and Technology Development Center to develop working business plans, marketing plans and product feasibility studies for companies in WNC, said Darrell Parker, dean of the College of Business. The SBTDC also works with WCU’s Center for Rapid Product Realization, which helps clients – about 80 percent of whom are from a 17-county area west of Hickory – refine or develop new products and improve business practices. Students work in high-tech labs with equipment including three-dimensional printers and scanning electron microscopes under the direction of faculty on projects for inventors, entrepreneurs, small and large businesses, other universities and not-for-profit companies. Projects have ranged from students spending days each week on a WNC company’s factory floor to help improve the efficiency of a manufacturing process to developing an affordable quality-assurance test for a WNC manufacturing company.
“I love to see people come in with ideas in their head or drawn on a napkin from which we can produce a physical product at the end,” said Patrick Gardner, director of the Rapid Center. “Our students get to help solve problems for our clients, and they learn to communicate and work as a team just as they will need to be able to do on-the-job after they graduate.”
Robert Adams, past interim head of the Department of Engineering and Technology, said in response to regional needs WCU launched an engineering degree with a concentration in mechanical engineering last year and will be offering a general engineering concentration at Biltmore Park this fall. In addition, WCU is developing a power engineering concentration and exploring development of a manufacturing engineering concentration. Supporting the growth was Apodaca and the N.C. General Assembly, which last year budgeted more than $1.4 million for expansion of WCU’s undergraduate engineering program to Biltmore Park. WCU also has won two grants totaling more than $1 million to expand engineering education. Wes Stone, the incoming interim department head, said the department has seen undergraduate enrollment increase 31 percent during the past four years.
WNC companies with a need for engineers – from Eaton Corp. to Duke Energy – say WCU graduates have been valuable members of their teams. Lisa Leatherman, the Duke Energy Carolinas Nantahala Area district manager for government and community relations, also said the quality of the engineering and technology program helps retain industry while making the region more attractive to potential businesses and entrepreneurs. Michael Meguiar, Asheville plant leader for GE Aviation, said it is critical for advanced manufacturing businesses to have a university that provides engineering talent to leverage. “When there is a pipeline of technical talent in the region, it not only facilitates business growth, but also is critical in the site-selection process,” said Meguiar.
Steve Morse, director of WCU’s Hospitality and Tourism Program, said at one time the large quantity of federally protected lands in WNC seemed a challenge for economic development, but in the last decade, those lands have become an asset in the region’s vital outdoor adventure industry. When the partial federal shutdown forced closure last fall of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Morse presented findings that suggested the closure in its first 10 days cost $33 million in lost visitor spending in the 18 North Carolina and Tennessee counties located within 60 miles of the park. He also showed that the closure resulted in more than $12 million in lost wages for workers, $1.8 million in lost state taxes and $1 million in lost local taxes for municipalities and counties. His study was widely reported, and in less than a week government leaders including N.C. Gov. Pat McCrory and Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam had worked together to find a way to reopen the park.
Morse also organized the first “Tourism Works in Western North Carolina” conference at which all participants from 26 WNC counties received a customized “Tourism Economic Fact Sheet” for their specific county outlining jobs, payroll, local and state taxes generated by tourist spending in each county – data that students helped gather. Tabitha M. Myler, director of travel and tourism in Graham County, said the information as well as subsequent presentation Morse made for the Graham Revitalization Economic Action Team, also known as GREAT, helped community members realize that one in every six jobs in the county was tourism related. “Tourism is bringing needed dollars into our community and helping offset our tax burden,” said Myler. Sharing that information is important to further cultivating a service-focused, welcoming culture in the community to help enhance tourism, she said.
With the recent closure of a manufacturing plant in Graham County, Rick Davis ’75 MAED ’79 EdS ’88, executive director of GREAT and retired superintendent of Graham County Schools, said he particularly welcomes partnerships from WCU. The group worked with WCU’s SBTDC to develop its first strategic plan, and Morse has assisted as the group begins work on a comprehensive tourism plan for the county. “There is so much expertise and knowledge at WCU with the faculty and others that can be shared,” said Davis. “The university needs to reach out to different counties, especially the ones in the far west.”
Brooks Robinson, senior vice president and general manager of Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort, said the business has benefited from partnerships with WCU, including a program in which a cohort of WCU’s MBA program meets on site, and from alumni who work in leadership roles across all of the operations departments. “We work in an entertainment business with food, beverage, table games, slots, hotel operations and other areas, and what they bring is a high degree of analytical rigor and a clear understanding of what is needed to be successful,” said Robinson.
Charles Conner MBA ’12, marketing director for Nantahala Outdoor Center, said the center, one of the biggest outfitters in the world, also benefits from working with WCU. His studies at WCU helped him develop business skills to enhance the work he does. In addition, NOC has partnered with faculty including Steve Ha, associate professor of economics and director of the MBA program, who assisted with an economic impact study that helped NOC win a grant to bring an international championship to the region. Meanwhile, students in hospitality and tourism, sport marketing and parks and recreation management are able to get hands-on experience through work and internships at NOC. “There’s so much we can offer each other,” said Conner.
WCU’s Department of Political Science and Public Affairs and the master’s degree program in public affairs are unmatched in WNC, said Chris Cooper, head of the department. “If you look for the movers and shakers in this region in the areas of public and nonprofit management, you’ll find that the vast majority have some connection to WCU,” said Cooper.
MPA alums working in WNC include Seth Hendler-Voss MPA ’13, Canton town manager. Hendler-Voss enrolled in the program while a parks and recreation employee in Asheville. Although he had planned on seeking a job as a park director, he changed course when he began to see how much town managers could do to help transform people’s lives. “Towns not only provide basic core services to survive but also those value-added services to expand people’s horizons and help them develop to reach their potential – to develop into productive citizens,” said Hendler-Voss.
Mars Hill native Danna Stansbury ’95 MPA ’98, deputy executive director of the Land of Sky Regional Council, works with public and private stakeholders to create regional solutions for issues that don’t begin or end at county or municipal boundaries such as economic, community and workforce development and regional transportation planning. “My time at WCU prepared me well for the challenges of public servanthood,” said Stansbury. “I’ve now been involved with all levels of government – local, state, federal and now regional government – which encompasses all three and merges them together.”
Brenda G. Mills MPA ’09, an economic development specialist with the city of Asheville, said her experience broadened her knowledge, made her more aware of research and best practices, and led her to incorporate more tools into her work from social media to Skype. Other regional leaders such as Jessica Cooper, Fontana Dam town administrator, say the workshops and classes at WCU through the Local Government Training Program have been close enough to enable her to participate, and the ability to call someone when she has a question has been invaluable. “We are the newest town in North Carolina, and we are unique in that we sit almost entirely on federal land so we don’t have much of a tax base,” she said. “We have a lot of questions that don’t fall under the norm, and it means a lot to get a return phone call when challenges come up.”
WCU faculty members also conduct research and participate in discussions related to public policy in WNC. Michael E. Smith, the Joe W. Kimmel Distinguished Professor of Construction Management, served on the regional coordinating council for Opt-In, a 15-month effort to better understand and inform the choices facing local governments, businesses and families in westernmost North Carolina. Smith, who has expertise in supply-chain management, also has worked on projects such as an inland port feasibility study. He gets so involved that he has lost sleep worrying about WNC’s transportation infrastructure.
“We live here, and we care about our neighbors and friends,” said Smith. “You can care about the region from somewhere else, but you have a stake in it when you are here. I think that could be said for the university as well. The university has a stake in this being a good place to live, to grow up and to have families.”
About 80 percent of WCU’s nursing graduates work in facilities west of Hickory, and new programs within WCU’s School of Nursing have been created in direct response to needs from the community, said Judy Neubrander, director of the School of Nursing. Area hospitals and health care providers needed more family nurse practitioners, and, with their support and funding assistance, WCU launched a family nurse practitioner program in 1999. Later, WCU stepped forward to help prepare students to serve as nursing faculty at community colleges through the 2003 establishment of a nurse educator program. After area hospitals reported spending $2 million to pay temporary nurse anesthetists, WCU launched a nurse anesthesia program in 2006 so WNC could hire permanent professionals who wanted to work in WNC, said Neubrander. The story of ask-and-answer repeated itself with the 2008 addition of a graduate nurse administrator program to prepare nurses for administrative and leadership roles, which was supported by an $825,000 federal Health Resources and Services Administration grant.
Then in response to national recommendations to increase the number of baccalaureate-trained nurses in the workforce, WCU partnered with Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College and the Foundation for Nursing Excellence in 2010 to develop the Regionally Increasing Baccalaureate Nurses Program, or RIBN. The program, which has now expanded statewide, allows students to be dually accepted and enrolled in the university and the community college, and this spring celebrated its first six graduates. “This program enables students to complete the high-quality and affordable associate’s degree programs in our region while also working toward graduating in four years with a bachelor of science in nursing degree,” said Neubrander.
In addition, last fall WCU started a doctorate of nursing practice program in collaboration with UNC Charlotte, and also launched a new program supported by a $1 million workforce diversity grant designed to help students of ethnic diversity and underprivileged backgrounds become competitive candidates to enter and succeed in nursing programs. Participants in the project receive monthly stipends that help with such expenses as child care and gas, mentoring support, tutoring and scholarships. HRSA recently awarded WCU a second $1 million federal workforce diversity grant to enable the university to partner with Mission Health to further improve the diversity and quality of nursing professionals in the region –particularly in rural settings.
“The bottom line is that everything nursing has done is to meet the needs of the community,” said Neubrander.
Many students from WCU’s College of Health and Human Sciences work with the nonprofit Vecinos Farmworker Health Program, which provides free health care services to farmworkers in WNC and, through a Millennial Initiative partnership with WCU, is based in the Health and Human Sciences Building. Through similar partnerships, WestCare’s Carolina West Sports Medicine clinic also is based in the building and a primary care practice is scheduled to open this fall.
“WestCare has been fortunate to develop a very integrated relationship with WCU, and we are now expanding that relationship by collaborating on a number of initiatives to expand access to health care in the communities we mutually serve, while at the same time enhancing the educational opportunities for WCU students,” said Steve Heatherly MBA ’99, CEO of WestCare Health, which has health care facilities including hospitals in Jackson and Swain counties. Becky Wilkes, chief human resources officer for WestCare, also said the health system hires WCU alumni and particularly benefits from the high level of clinical education that those staff members bring to the job. In addition, WestCare benefits when students gain clinical experience at WestCare. In 2013, 63 nursing students, five physical therapy students, one nursing master’s degree student, 11 athletic training students, 47 EMT students, three social work students and three marketing interns worked with the system.
Mission Health, which employs more than 10,000 people and serves WNC with an array of health care facilities including hospitals in Asheville as well as in Franklin, Spruce Pine, Highlands, Marion and Brevard, also has partnered with WCU on initiatives including giving $250,000 to support a scholarship program at WCU in 2011 and working with WCU in 2012 to offer a new graduate certificate program in health care innovation management to employees of Mission Health.
“Western Carolina University produces graduates who can work in the highly complex world of today’s health care,” said Ronald A. Paulus, president and CEO of Mission Health. “We appreciate that because a highly skilled workforce is crucial to Mission’s success and to Western North Carolina’s health.”
The educational experience gained at WCU has been valuable for health care employees who do not work directly with patient care, too, such as Heath Nettles MBA ’12, who works with digital and social marketing at Mission Health. Under his stewardship, the organization’s Facebook page has been “liked” by more than 10,000 people, and Nettles said he uses everything he learned at WCU, where he also had worked in admissions and advising, in the work he does to help Mission Health be part of the conversations that take place online about health care in WNC.
“Working at a university or in health care is not just about improving the quality of education or improving the quality of health care,” said Nettles. “It is about improving the quality of life in the region, and being part of that work is something that feels meaningful to me.”
Participating in a community production of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat” and learning to hear the music as well as the lyrics opened the door to a new part of her life, said Lynda Hull Sossamon ’69, a Sylva business owner and town commissioner, explaining her passion for the WCU Friend of the Arts organization. “Being involved in the arts has taught me to see, to touch, to listen and then to feel emotions that the art produces,” said Sossaman, who eagerly accepted the chance to be part of and then chair the organization’s advancement council. “I want to help others realize how much the arts could really enrich their lives.”
As part of WCU’s programs in the arts, students not only master skills to pursue careers but also share their work with the community in exhibits and performances. In addition, more than 30,000 people attended more than 100 shows at the John W. Bardo Fine and Performing Arts Center during the 2013-14 season. Among the notes that Paul Lormand, the center’s director, has received is a message thanking WCU for making it possible for nearly two dozen foster children and parents to “experience the wonder of the performing arts.” Meanwhile, the WCU Fine Art Museum’s changing exhibitions and programs host up to 10,000 visitors annually that include not only students, faculty and staff but visitors from as far away as New Zealand.
“Our charge is to really introduce our immediate community to some of the contemporary work taking place throughout the country,” said David Brown, director of the Fine Art Museum. A recent exhibit, “Remote Sites of War,” featured works such as portraits of Afghan people in order to delve into the “peripheries of war,” and the museum’s collection includes pieces by artists such as art glass pioneer Harvey Littleton and Cherokee potter Joel Queen ’05 MFA ’09. For Queen, his work also is about cultural preservation. He would dig 6 feet into muddy, soggy earth near a pond to mine for the scarce, mica-rich blue clay with which nine generations of his family have worked.
WCU also has a commitment to supporting regional cultural preservation efforts. The Cherokee studies program and the Cherokee language program and language revitalization efforts have been instrumental in helping members of the tribe preserve their culture, said Annette Clapsaddle, executive director of the Cherokee Preservation Foundation, noting that the level of scholarship that faculty and students have brought specifically to the Cherokee language revitalization effort has added a new dimension to the work they do. Yolanda Saunooke ’12 said she believes her experience in the Cherokee studies program has helped her do a better job in her work with the Tribal Historic Preservation Office, which is committed to protecting archaeological and cultural resources and ensuring historic preservation of significant Cherokee sites. Catuce Tiger MA ’14 concentrated in Cherokee studies as part of work on his master’s degree in history because cultural and historic preservation is necessary to help people more strongly connect with their identity – with who they are.
Hunter Library’s digital collections also are helping not only preserve but also safely and conveniently share fragile and rare items connected to WNC’s heritage, and thousands of people come every fall to WCU’s free Mountain Heritage Day festival on the last Saturday of every September to connect with their roots and experience a taste of an old-fashioned mountain fair. The event is organized through the Mountain Heritage Center, which celebrates the natural and cultural heritage of the Southern Appalachian region. Scott Philyaw ’83, director of the center and associate professor of history, said the center annually logs about 20,000 visits to exhibits and programs from people across the Southeast as well as tour groups from places such as Northern Ireland. “Almost everything in the center’s collection is a donation, and when someone donates, whether it is their great grandfather’s tools or a great-great grandmother’s quilt, they are entrusting the Mountain Heritage Center to be a steward of part of their family legacy,” said Philyaw.
For him, the Mountain Heritage Center and Mountain Heritage Day hearken back to what WCU was in the beginning – a group of families in the Cullowhee Valley who wanted something better for their children, for their community and for other mountain communities. Philyaw was working in a factory when a friend said he should go to college, specifically Western Carolina. At WCU, he felt accepted and challenged, as faculty members trusted him with responsibilities such as traveling abroad to conduct research and negotiate the loan of museum artifacts. He went on to earn his doctorate and then return to WCU. “I am the son of a cashier at a grocery store and a furniture factory worker, and WCU faculty members said, ‘Yes, you can do this work. We have confidence in you,’” said Philyaw. “And it’s not just my story. Engaged learning is what this school is about. That’s in our DNA.”
Tom Ross, president of the UNC system, said WCU has been a beacon of opportunity for the western part of the state for the past 125 years. “Western Carolina University’s early focus on preparing teachers for rural mountain classrooms established WCU as the region’s best hope for economic growth and prosperity,” said Ross. “Its academic offerings and outreach have grown and evolved over many generations to meet the changing needs of the people of Western North Carolina and beyond. Today, WCU continues to provide the essential knowledge and skills needed to meet the new challenges facing our state, and to help improve our communities and quality of life. WCU remains a shining light in the west and is the linchpin for sustainable economic development in that region of our state.”