President Spellings met with students and faculty during her visit to UNCW

Beach-Side Powerhouse

The tour of UNC Wilmington actually marks the second time I’ve had the pleasure of visiting “UNC by the Sea,” as one campus trustee called it. Chancellor Zito Sartarelli’s installation in March gave me a glimpse of the pride and beauty of this place, not to mention a chance to see Zito’s energy and drive up close. He’s the right man for the job, a leader with ambition and spirit of service for a campus that is growing and thriving.

UNC Wilmington is a relatively young institution, founded in the years after World War II to serve the booming population of returning veterans looking to put their GI Bill benefits to good use. Thanks to the far-sighted investment of local and state leaders, the original Wilmington College has grown into a regional power, welcoming nearly 15,000 undergraduates and boosting a strong coastal economy.

The visit was a great opportunity to celebrate the passage of the Connect NC Bond, which is going to transform UNCW’s College of Health and Human Services with a new building and new opportunities for collaborative teaching. By bringing nursing, social work, clinical research, and a host of other health science disciplines into closer contact, the new facility will help students learn the same way they will work — partnering with other agencies and health providers to offer a more comprehensive approach to patient care. With an aging population and chronic health needs in the eastern region, North Carolina’s investment in quality health education going to pay dividends for decades to come.

And that’s only the latest in UNCW’s long history of bolstering the region through veteran’s education, marine research, and teacher preparation. I met with students in the Watson College of Education, a beautiful building that catalogs decades of North Carolina history (pdf) in a series of exhibits in the main hall. On their way to high-tech classrooms that offer the latest in hybrid learning and advanced instructional design, students pass displays of faded school desks and a model of a one-room schoolhouse. It’s a fantastic reminder that the means of teaching always evolve, but the ideal of a sound public education remains timeless.

That message resonates loudly at UNC Wilmington, where students themselves are working hard to ensure opportunity for the next generation. A young woman who works with Centro Hispano on campus told me about the Embajadores program, which sends UNCW students into elementary school classrooms to encourage low-income and first-generation students, especially the children of immigrants, to start picturing a college-bound future. Another student, a Marine Corps veteran, described the feeling of belonging at UNCW, and how the Military Resource Lounge helped him adjust to academic life. Those initiatives and more reflect UNCW’s determination to meet students where they are, serving a diversifying swath of North Carolina.

The university is also an anchor for the region’s growing arts and tourism economy. I got to visit with students in the Film Studies program, which has become a close partner for the collection of studios — dubbed “Hollywood East” — that now call Wilmington home. Students not only have access to industry-standard equipment on campus, but also a well-established network of internships and projects that offer real-world experience in television and movie production.

I arrived a bit too late to catch Visions Film Festival, billed as the only peer-reviewed festival and conference for undergraduate filmmakers. Students in the film studies program told me it takes an enormous amount of work to review submissions and coordinate the logistics for the gathering, but it helps mark Wilmington as a center of creativity and scholarship in filmmaking. Major studios and networks have already discovered the charms of the region, and it’s a treat to see UNCW students working on the next generation of film and television.

It was also enormous fun to see the work of UNCW’s Publishing Lab, where students in creative writing can see their work through from first draft to finished product. I met some of the editorial staff of Ecotone, the pathbreaking literary journal that has helped attract national talent to UNCW and set a new standard for creative writing about place and nature. I didn’t know this before my visit, but an “ecotone” refers to the zone between two distinct ecological regions. It represents a place of transition, opportunity, and risk. What a perfect name for a literary journal, and what an apt metaphor for what college is meant to be.

You can bet that I’ll be back to Wilmington, and soon. I’ve been twice in my first two months on the job and barely caught site of the water, which doesn’t seem right. I’m especially excited about coming back to visit the Center for Marine Science, the university’s state-of-the-art research facility right on the Intercoastal Waterway. From oyster farming to advanced molecular analysis of ocean compounds, the Center is focused on putting marine science to work on behalf of North Carolina. There’s even space for local companies to lease research labs and gain access to advanced equipment, helping drive a perfect niche for the region’s growing economy.

In the meantime, I’ll be enjoying the issues of Ecotone and the collection of excellent novels from Lookout Books that I carried back from UNC Wilmington. Who says a beach read can’t be substantive, or that a beautiful beach-side university can’t also be an academic powerhouse? At UNC Wilmington, you really can have it both ways.

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