Growing a university in a rural mountain valley is no easy task, not to mention building a regional reach across four states (North Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, and South Carolina), but Western Carolina University seems to have figured it out. In fact, WCU and its surroundings are clearly thriving and teaching us newcomers to the state a thing or two.
After two marvelous days breathing the rarified air in Catamount Country, I could appreciate the “Western Way” – that community’s pride, family atmosphere, and commitment to its students are unparalleled. I encountered students from every possible background, many of them the first in their extended families to go off to college. I experienced first-hand WCU’s respect for and strong relationship with the Cherokees’ Eastern Band. And I met world-class faculty drawn by the chance to work closely with undergraduates and enjoy the beauty of North Carolina’s mountains.
Faculty like Dr. Brian Byrd, a renowned specialist in mosquito-born illnesses who earned his undergraduate degree at UNC Asheville before pursuing a Ph.D. from Tulane’s School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine. His efforts have been supported by the Centers for Disease Control, which is looking to researchers like him to help control the spread of deadly pathogens all over the world. I saw the work underway in his lab and met Marissa Taylor, a WCU senior who is researching alongside Dr. Byrd while weighing multiple grad school offers.
That kind of mentoring, where faculty and students partner to tackle big problems, was also evident in Dr. Patrick Gardner’s Center for Rapid Product Realization. I never knew that I wanted a 3D printer, but after spending some time with Dr. Gardner’s students, I’m ready to clear out the garage at the President's House and start tinkering with laser cutters and machine tools. Seeing what students are able to create, and how much time they get to spend working on real-world problems for companies and entrepreneurs in the mountain region, it’s no wonder the program has grown so quickly.
I also made a stop at WCU’s decades-old steam plant — known around campus as the “steam museum.” It would make a fantastic backdrop for a black-and-white movie about the Industrial Revolution, and I have undying respect for all of the folks who keep that thing running. Clearly, we have some talented maintenance staff and some very pressing repair and renovation needs.
And while we’re talking about decay, my thanks to the men and women who oversee the “body farm” — more properly known as the Forensic Osteology Research Station. There are few other facilities like it anywhere, and the kind of training that goes on there is crucial in advancing forensic science and criminal investigation. It’s a good reminder that the University’s work touches on every aspect of life.
Everywhere I went at WCU, I met students and faculty who love being here, who wouldn’t dream of being anywhere other than these beautiful hills, doing work that matters. I can see why. I look forward to being back in Cullowhee soon, perhaps this fall for a football game and a performance by the Pride of the Mountains Marching Band.