WCU remains committed to meeting the needs of the region we serve

Western Carolina is a university firmly grounded in two inherent principles that have guided this institution since its founding – providing access to higher education and meeting the needs of Western North Carolina. In recent months, we have emphasized the need to ensure our commitment to access by identifying fundraising for endowed scholarships for deserving students as our No. 1 philanthropic priority. And rest assured…we will be continuing that conversation in the months and years ahead.

But it is important that we not overlook that other founding ideal of serving the people of Western North Carolina, a common theme in many stories in this magazine edition. During my installation, I affirmed WCU’s commitment to meeting the needs of this wonderful region, and I am pleased to report that commitment is stronger than ever. Your university is an engaged, active partner in the communities of WNC.

The examples are legion. The majority of research conducted by WCU faculty and students, including work funded by outside agencies, is focused on regional issues – from efforts to revitalize the native Cherokee language to helping underserved populations enter the health care professions, and from assisting WNC businesses to protecting water quality and forest resources.

Our institutional focus on our region is evident in the work done by students involved in service-learning initiatives. Over the years, students have played an integral role in helping the town of Dillsboro deal with the economic blow caused by the loss of a major tourism attraction. They have reached out to less-fortunate neighbors through a variety of poverty-relief projects and have provided service to wounded warriors at the Veterans Administration hospital in Asheville. Last year, they teamed with television personality Ty Pennington to transform a shuttered prison in Waynesville into a homeless shelter, halfway house and soup kitchen.

Meeting regional needs is why last year, with the legislative help of N.C. Sen. Tom Apodaca ’80, we expanded our undergraduate education program in engineering to our Biltmore Park instructional site. The expansion was a direct answer to pleas for assistance from business and industry in the fast-growing Asheville-Hendersonville corridor to increase the number of qualified employees. Meeting regional need is at the heart of the Kimmel School of Construction Management and Technology’s philosophy of project-based learning, where students not only study theoretical aspects about engineering and technology, but also apply those theories in hands-on projects designed to help solve real problems faced by industry partners. And meeting regional need is the driving force behind new clinics located in our Health and Human Sciences Building, which provide exceptional health services to our community while supporting the education and development of the highly skilled health professionals of the future.

As part of our emphasis on being a good regional partner, we convened the WNC P-16 Education Consortium, bringing together a group of leaders to address education needs toward the goal of improving the knowledge and skills of the WNC workforce. Last November, we hosted the inaugural LEAD:WNC summit, attended by nearly 300 business leaders, elected and appointed officials, educators, economists and entrepreneurs. The message of the day was that the key to economic and community development in WNC is for the public, private and nonprofit sectors to reach beyond town limits and county lines to embrace a more regional approach, steeped in a spirit of cooperation and partnership.

It is in that spirit that WCU is hosting an ongoing series of spin-off LEAD summits. This spring, two events focused on the subjects of hospitality and tourism, and entrepreneurship and innovation. The university is in the planning stages for conferences this fall on topics expected to include quality of life and, once again, education, innovation and tourism.

In addition to hosting regional partners on campus, we also have committed to taking our leaders into the very communities we serve. This year marked the second time that members of the WCU Leadership Academy and other campus leaders spent a week in May crisscrossing the mountains as part of a regional bus tour, with stops from Robbinsville to Asheville, to learn more about the region and to help strengthen relationships between WCU and its surrounding communities. This annual trip helps ensure that WCU stays grounded in the region we are designed to serve and that we fulfill our mission as a public institution.

Earlier this year, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching honored WCU’s emphasis on community engagement and its link to engaged teaching, research and service by selecting the university to receive its 2015 Community Engagement Classification in recognition of alignment of campus mission, culture, leadership, resources and practices that support dynamic community engagement.

None of this should really come as a huge surprise to those who bleed purple and gold. Helping meet the needs of the region is part and parcel of “the Western Way.” It’s in our DNA, this recognition that we have an important role to play in what I like to call this slice of paradise that is Western North Carolina.

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

David O. Belcher