Western Carolina University’s quasquicentennial anniversary, a yearlong celebration of our university’s 125 years of making a difference in the lives of the students and region we serve, drew to a close in December. Throughout 2014, we spent time looking back at our past, our roots, our historic mission of service to Western North Carolina and our growth as an engine of economic and community development. This looking back has been appropriate because the successes of today and the opportunities of tomorrow are built upon the solid foundation created during the previous 125 years. Now we turn our attention to the years ahead and to the future of this great institution.
2014 proved to be an amazing point of departure for looking toward Western Carolina’s future. It was the year WCU began offering engineering courses to students in the Asheville-Hendersonville area at our Biltmore Park instructional site, thanks to the legislative support of Sen. Tom Apodaca ’80 and his colleagues in the General Assembly. It also was the year when the amount of external grant funding for research at WCU rose 60 percent, providing resources for the important work of faculty and student researchers.
2014 was the year in which enrollment metrics continued their climb – in terms of both quantity and quality. Last fall witnessed the third consecutive year of record enrollment at Western Carolina, and our students came to campus better prepared for the academic rigors of university study. And there are impressive indicators of WCU’s reputational growth in academic quality. For example, last year WCU placed second nationally in the number of undergraduate students whose research was accepted for presentation at the National Conference on Undergraduate Research – the ninth consecutive year WCU has placed in the top 10. It was the year in which our academic programs received high marks from US News and World Report, the Princeton Review and Military Advanced Education magazine.
In 2014, WCU stepped up to help lead the charge to reinvigorate the WNC economy, hosting almost 300 regional community, business and political leaders at the inaugural LEAD:WNC conference in November. It was the year when readers of Blue Ridge Outdoors magazine confirmed what those of us at Western Carolina already knew – WCU is the top outdoors destination university in the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic.
In the realm of athletics, 2014 was “The year of the Cats.” I’ve written previously about our women’s and men’s track and field teams winning the Southern Conference Indoor Championships last spring, the baseball Catamounts claiming the regular season SoCon championship, and J.T. Poston securing the SoCon men’s golf championship. This past fall, our football team orchestrated a remarkable turnaround to post a winning record and finish second in the conference. The Cats even put a little scare into then-No. 1 Alabama.
And, 2014 was the year when the whole world experienced the sights and sounds of our Pride of the Mountains Marching Band, selected not only to participate in the annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, but picked to lead the parade. Yes, last year was one for the record books. But now is definitely not the time to rest on our laurels.
We must take advantage of the momentum of our 125th anniversary celebration to continue the relentless pursuit of our vision for WCU. We must invest strategically in degree programs that will prepare our students to fill high-demand jobs in our region and state. We must help provide an accessible education to deserving students by increasing privately funded scholarships for high-performing students in need of financial assistance. We must increase community partnerships that will provide academic opportunities that get students out of the classroom in order to put their education to the test in a real-world environment. And we must be an active collaborator in efforts to move the region forward by playing a significant role in economic and community development, in driving conversation among leaders in different parts of the region, and in supporting the area’s cultural strengths.
Much of the work in the years ahead will revolve around our continuing efforts to keep our institution’s time-honored commitment to student access and student success at the forefront of all we do. That is why we are ramping up our efforts to encourage stronger philanthropic investment in WCU – efforts that have resulted in the establishment of more than 100 new endowed scholarships at WCU since my installation in March 2012.
That is why we are strategically advocating with the General Assembly to advance our UNC system and institutional priorities. That is why we are aggressively expanding our network of institutional friends and supporters. In short, after commemorating our past, we must continue laying the foundation for our future.
This is an amazing time at Western Carolina University, full of momentum and promise. Our students, faculty and staff are doing and achieving great things. It is our responsibility to help secure the tools they need to keep that momentum going and to make that promise a reality. With your help, advocacy, financial support, commitment, energy and passion, there is no telling what we will do.
Our first 125 years have been remarkable, and I trust that you believe as I do – that the next 5, 10, 20, 50, 125 years will not simply sustain the proud Western Carolina legacy, but set the world on Catamount fire.
That vision is in our hands. What are we going to do with it?
David O. Belcher