Graduation and beyond: Local WCU alums reflect on university’s place in region
Jackson County Manager Chuck Wooten arrived at Western Carolina University as a freshman in 1969. He remembers his college days fondly.
“My classmates and fraternity brothers all had such a great time in Cullowhee,” Wooten said. “I remember as a freshman, wearing beanies — we got to burn’em at Homecoming.”
Wooten graduated in 1973. A few years later he’d be back in Cullowhee. After seeing a job ad in the Charlotte Observer for a comptroller position at WCU, he decided he might like to return.
More recently, prior to taking his job with Jackson County, Wooten served as the university’s vice chancellor for administration and finance. He’s quick to preach the gospel of WCU, to talk about its “significant impact” and how the school is an “economic driver for our region.”
“We’re just so fortunate,” Wooten said. “In many cases folks in the west may not choose to leave the west to seek higher education.”
Wooten is just one among a large number of WCU graduates who call the area home and sing the school’s praises.
Barbara Parker, president of Haywood Community College, is a Catamount. She also stuck around after graduation, playing witness to the university’s impact on regional education.
“I think WCU has had quite an impact in our community, particularly the educational community,” Parker said.
The HCC president appreciates the relationship her school enjoys with WCU. University faculty members have served on various advisory boards at the community college, and HCC students are able to transfer easily to a four-year degree program in Cullowhee due to an articulation agreement between the two institutions.
“WCU is very supportive of our work here at Haywood Community College. We have ongoing dialogue between the two institutions regarding potential partnerships to enhance the experiences of our students,” Parker said.
HCC’s Vice President of Student Services Laura Leatherwood also graduated from Western. She holds three degrees from the university — a bachelor’s, a master’s and a doctoral degree.
“I did not want to leave the area to get a college education, and WCU was uniquely situated to serve my educational needs,” Leatherwood said. “I am thankful every day for having WCU in our backyard.”
Leatherwood still volunteers for WCU. She feels that the local communities should support the mission of the university because the institution serves to strengthen the region.
One of the ways in which WCU impacts the area is simply by being an active participant, what Leatherwood calls an “engaged institution.”
“One of the best outreach efforts that the university has undertaken is its philosophy of being an ‘engaged institution.’ What that means to me is that we are using the resources and intellectual talent of the staff, faculty and students to solve local problems and facilitate solutions,” Leatherwood said.
Julie Spiro, the executive director of the Jackson County Chamber of Commerce, is another local grad who’s not shy about cheering on her alma mater.
“My blood runs purple!” she said. “I am definitely an evangelist for WCU.”
Spiro has deep roots at WCU. Her grandmother graduated from the school in 1917 when it was a teacher’s college. Her father graduated from Cullowhee High School, as did she.
“I graduated from Cullowhee High in the Camp Laboratory building on campus, and then later from WCU,” Spiro explained. “I grew up on the campus and have great memories of WCU from attending athletic events to summer learning programs, taking swimming lessons, as well as being a student in the classroom.”
From her job with the Chamber of Commerce, Spiro has a nice vantage point from which to view WCU’s impact on the local area. It excites her to see the university working with the Dillsboro and Sylva business communities and upstarting educational programs aimed at the area’s older, non-student population.
“Western has done an excellent job reaching out to the community, particularly over the past five years,” Spiro said.
Dawn Gilchrist, another WCU graduate, also appreciates the university’s contribution to the region. She graduated from the college and now teaches English at Swain County High School. She is grateful for the community involvement of WCU faculty and the cultural benefits associated with an institution of higher learning.
But she is particularly appreciative of the educational benefit that WCU offers to the region’s youth. She has seen students attend college in Cullowhee who may not have otherwise been able to pursue higher education.
“Although I have always wished that WCU did even more to fill the niche of a place-based, southern Appalachian university, perhaps their greatest impact is that they have created opportunities for intelligent students in this area who prefer not to, or cannot afford to, go far away from these mountains to seek a postsecondary education,” Gilchrist said.