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Survey sheds light on WCU student vision for Cullowhee

What’s a college without a college town?

It’s an almost unimaginable scenario to those who love the unique, quirky places that grow up around major universities. But it’s very much the reality when it comes to Western Carolina University and the community that houses it, Cullowhee.

Despite its proximity to the college, students hardly frequent the commercial district. Not that there’s much to draw people in — a Mexican restaurant, a Chinese restaurant, a barber and an auto repair shop are about the only things there, and the storefronts badly need an update.

“It’s an eyesore,” says Chris Blake, a WCU assistant English professor and co-chair of the group Cullowhee Revitalization Endeavor (CuRvE). “If you drive through, you’ll see a number of broken signs. There are no sidewalks, no streetlights. Cullowhee is dark at night.”

The community’s appearance is a major deterrent to potential student business that’s just a stone’s throw away.

“Cullowhee is the backdoor of Western, and there is right now a disconnect between the university and the town,” says Blake. “Students don’t go to Cullowhee to do much at all.”

CuRvE’s goal is to help breathe some life back into the community. But where to begin?

“What would students like to see in Cullowhee, and what would bring them down to the area?” Blake’s group asked themselves. “We want to revitalize Cullowhee, but to do so, we need to know what it would take and what kind of changes they want to be made. If we can’t get students involved, I don’t know if it can happen.”

Enter political science professor Todd Collins. Together, the men came up with an idea to survey the student body and ask what they’d like to see in Cullowhee.

“We had been needing the data for some time, and we just did not have the means to collect it or the resources to do so,” says Blake. “Todd had the perfect connection, because his group of students is involved in survey work. This was the perfect fit.”

Collins’ students were game. They knew firsthand how students felt about Cullowhee.

“We get Chinese takeout every once in a while and we love (the Mexican restaurant), but other than that, we don’t really spend much time down there,” said Caroline Wright, a sophomore political science major. “We don’t even really drive that way.”

Collins’ classes created a 26-question survey to gauge just how students felt Cullowhee could be improved.

“We thought about what questions we wanted to be asked,” says Katy Elders, also a sophomore political science major.

Asking the students what they wanted out of Cullowhee was an approach that hadn’t been tried before.

“This is the first time anybody had tried to do any survey of the student body as a whole, and reach out and talk to students collectively,” says Collins.


Students speak

The response was overwhelming. Close to 1,100 took part in the survey, which was sent out through email. It was totally voluntary — students didn’t get a prize for participating.

“I was shocked,” said Elders. “There was more response than we’ve had for other surveys on campus.”

“I was really surprised by the number of people who had things to say other than, ‘I want a bar, or ‘I want a Burger King,’” Elders says. “There were some really long, really well-developed answers, with many people saying we like the way that Cullowhee is, and we don’t want it to lose its small-town appeal.”

The survey shed some light on how often students frequent Cullowhee businesses and their opinions about the area’s current state.

Students overwhelmingly felt that Cullowhee’s appearance could use an overhaul. About 70 percent said the appearance of businesses and buildings “needs lots of improvement,” while close to zero said that it “needs no improvement.”

Some students wrote that they didn’t feel safe in the area.

“Some said they’re afraid to go there at night because it’s dark, and not well lit,” said Collins.

When asked how frequently students use the businesses in Old Cullowhee, just 11.5 percent said they do so weekly. Most students — 32 percent — said they never use the town’s businesses. Of those who live on campus, closest to the Cullowhee commercial district, 38 percent never go there.

Yet students would be willing to go to the area if there was something to offer. Seventy-two percent said they’d frequent the area weekly if new businesses were developed there.

Simply improving the area’s appearance will attract students, according to the survey.

“Students said they’d be twice as likely to use businesses if they were just cleaned up,” Elders says.

An improved look could have further-reaching benefits, students seemed to think.

“A lot of students mentioned that they thought a nicer Cullowhee area would help with student retention, and keeping students around here on weekends,” says Collins. “It also may provide more jobs.”


Smart growth

But although students indicated they’d like more offerings in Cullowhee, they’re picky about what businesses set up shop in town.

A surprising number preached smart growth, and said they don’t want to see chain stores come to the area.

“A lot of students mentioned smart growth,” says Collins. “They didn’t want huge chains and strip malls. A lot of people mentioned trying to keep the small-town feel of the area.”

Such opinions are in contrast to Chancellor John Bardo’s proposed plan to construct a “town center,” retail complex with shops, restaurants, entertainment venues and other businesses on 22 acres of WCU’s property. Bardo has mentioned the possibility of chains like Barnes and Noble and Moe’s Southwest Grill coming to the town center.

Faculty protested the idea of major chains inhabiting Cullowhee, saying such stores could make it harder for small, local businesses to survive. Elders, like many other students, shares faculty concern about the impact of chain stores.

“I personally don’t want to see a Chili’s or Applebee’s,” she said. “I think we already have a unique set of restaurants and shops here.”

Blake stressed that Cullowhee’s identity needs to be determined by the people that live there, not an outside corporation.

“Someone could come in from outside and say we’ll make this into a town that may not have the flavor of what Cullowhee is,” he says. “The identity needs to be unique to Cullowhee, not what someone thinks Cullowhee should be.”

The issue of alcohol proved to be divisive in the survey, largely because of the chain stores that could follow. Cullowhee is dry, and needs to incorporate as a town before it can allow alcohol to be served there. The survey didn’t specifically ask about bars or alcohol. It did ask students if they favored incorporation. The majority was in favor of it, and Collins thinks that was because they support bringing alcohol to the community.

In responses to open-ended questions, many students wrote about their desire to see bars in Cullowhee. Others opposed it, and the survey revealed two camps on either side of the issue.

“You have your whole big group that really wanted incorporation because they really want alcohol, and a bunch of people who want to see local businesses as opposed to chain restaurants and stores,” said Wright.


More outdoors

A number of students advocated taking advantage of what’s already there — namely, the area’s natural resources — and placing more of a focus on recreation.

Elders says that surprised her.

“There was a significant amount in favor of recreation activities, which I didn’t anticipate would equal the desire for restaurants and other businesses,” she says. “A lot of students are interested in hiking, tubing, and fishing.”

Specifically, many students expressed desire for better access to the Tuckasegee River that runs next to WCU’s campus. Currently, one must traipse through a hill of rocks and brush to get down to the river. An access point could allow for a canoe put-in, swimming, tubing and fishing in a convenient location. Elders says she and her friends routinely drive 20 or 30 minutes out of town for places to swim and fish.

Improving river access has been a long-held desire of CuRvE’s.

“Right now, students don’t use the river,” says Blake. “We have the potential to have something very similar to Cherokee, but it will take quit a bit of money.” The Oconaluftee River that runs through the nearby Cherokee Indian Reservation is a popular fishing and wading spot.


Tool for change

The survey results, the first of their kind, have the potential to be a powerful tool.

For example, said Collins, they could influence businesses to clean up their buildings, or they could help a business decide to relocate to the area by showing the untapped market that resides there. Or if a group is applying for grants to fund parks or greenways, the results are evidence of the number of people who would use them.

Plans are in the works for a second round of surveying, this time of residents in the area. For now, the survey seems to have prompted students to get on board. Many of them wrote that they’d like to volunteer in any revitalization effort.

“I just really hope that people realize we actually do care about what’s going on in the area, and that we’re not just stereotypical college students who only want to hang out and party,” Wright said.

She added that she’s personally optimistic about Cullowhee’s potential.

“It could use a little help, but I really do think that it has the potential to be a really cool little place in the mountains.”

WCU enjoys a surge in popularity

By Jennifer Garlesky • Staff Writer

When Callie LaDue started shopping for a college, there was only one school that she had her eyes on — Western Carolina University.

“I liked it because it was a small campus but it wasn’t too small,” said the freshman biology major.

Moving to a small mountain town that was close to her hometown of Charlotte was another reason LaDue wanted to go to Western.

“It’s only two hours away from home,” she said.

LaDue is one of the 1,260 students that enrolled as freshmen at WCU for the 2007-2008 school year. Administrative officials were banking on enrolling 1,550 students but fell short of that goal by a small margin. However, there’s no chance the school will fall short for the fall semester of 2008.

“Our demand far exceeds our capacity this year,” said Alan Kines, WCU’s director of undergraduate admissions.

Workers at the admissions office have been sifting through piles of freshman applications. The university had received 6,388 applications as of Feb. 11, almost double last year’s number of 3,908.


A sudden spike

University officials attribute the sudden spike in freshman applications at WCU to a new marketing plan. The university has hired a Virginia-based consulting firm, Royall and Co., to help find students who would enjoy attending the small mountain university for the next four to five years, Kines explained.

The university previously attracted students by search and fulfillment practices, which is a tool that many universities use. When a student takes his or her SAT or ACT, they complete a survey. Based on the results from the survey, university officials would buy student names that meet the university criteria for acceptance. The university then mails information to these individuals to entice them to attend.

Under the new marketing plan, an extensive database owned by the consulting firm is used by admissions officials to fine-tine their search. The database contains the most recent information about students, which allows officials to target those that would be more inclined to attend WCU, Kines explained.

“We are just filling the bucket better,” he said.

Even though the university is seeing a spike in freshman applications, it doesn’t mean the WCU will be overrun with students. The university plans to enroll 1,550 students, which was its goal for last year.

“We are being very deliberate about keeping the class at a number we can house, feed and continue to have a teaching ratio of 14 to 1,” Kines said.

Additionally, the new marketing plan has university representatives hitting the highway in a statewide promotional campaign.

“We are going into areas where we can maximize the message,” Kines said. For instance, the university decided to market itself to students in Wilmington instead of Fayetteville. The move was prompted by information gathered from the consulting firm.

“We are not guessing anymore,” he said.


Different reasons

However, the university’s new marketing plan did not entice LaDue to attend WCU. She learned about the Cullowhee campus when she was in middle school.

“I had some family members come here,” she said.

The university is making an effort to increase its out-of-state enrollment. Officials are starting to reach out to students who live in Georgia, Virginia, Tennessee, Florida and New Jersey.

By searching for students in North Carolina and out of state — which is increasing the number of applicants — the university is able to be more selective about who it accepts. That means higher-achieving freshmen.

“The bottom line is we want better students to teach,” said Dr. Fred Hinson, senior vice chancellor of enrollment management at WCU.


System-wide spike

Western is not the only University of North Carolina system college to experience a surge in applicants. Applicant numbers are also up at Appalachian State University, said Paul Hiatt, director of admissions. Last year the university had 12,946 applications and enrolled 2,725 students. University officials are banking on this number to go up, which is causing them to bump enrollment by a small margin of 50 students.

As of last week, the university had more than 14,000 applicants for the fall 2008 freshman class and officials expect that number to rise.

“It looks like we’re getting close to 15,000 applications, and we may get as many as 16,000,” Hiatt said.

Hiatt also attributes the university marketing plan for the increase in freshman applications.

“We have a pretty extensive marketing approach,” he said.

The university hosts several workshops promoting the school in major metropolitan areas.

“We travel and do mass mailing throughout North Carolina but also the Southeast as well as the Northeast and Midwest,” he said.

Over the past four years officials at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro have seen an increase in freshman applications as well.

“UNCG has enjoyed a steady and robust growth in applications for admission and enrollment over recent years,” said Steve Gilliam, assistant vice chancellor of university relations at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. As an example, freshman applications increased 24 percent—from 8,191 to 10,151— in the four-year period from fall 2003 to fall 2007. The size of the freshman class during the same period has increased 19 percent from 2,055 in 2003 to 2,445 in 2007, he said.

And university officials are expecting freshman applications to continue to rise for 2008. The university has received 8,539 applications as of Jan. 31. Last year at this time the university had 8,856 freshman applications and enrolled 2,446.

However, UNCG’s admission policy is quite different than other state university when it comes to freshman class size.

“UNCG will admit all qualified applicants and does not have a limitation on the admitted freshman class size,” said Gilliam.


Raising the bar

The academic standard to be accepted into the freshman class at WCU is on the rise as more students want to attend the school.

“We have much higher metric scores in regard to SAT and GPA scores,” Kines said.

Kines said Western is moving to the pool of top state universities, which will give high-achieving students another option for college.

“These kids have a choice of were they want to go,” Kines.

The average SAT score for WCU has risen 37 points from last year. As for GPA, the average for last year was 3.6 and this year students have a 3.71.

Officials say an advantage to high test scores and better students is that professors can teach a much more advanced curriculum.

“Students are better prepared to rise to the level of instruction,” Kines said.

Brian Railsback, dean of the WCU Honors College, says the difference is noticeable.

“The academic profile of the freshman honors student keeps on going up,” Railsback said.

The Honors College accepts 150 students a semester.

“We have raised the GPA requirement to a weighted 4.0,” said Railsback. “This is the highest for an Honors College in the state. Students who are high achievers are looking to Western.”

Railsbacks says more students are looking at WCU because of its professors and the university’s high-profile programs. Those include construction management, education, criminal justice, and health sciences. Officials are also expecting the new motion picture program to also grow quickly, Hinson said.

Requirements elsewhere send students to WCU

However, some freshmen at WCU say they wound up in Cullowhee because they did not get accepted at their first choice college. That’s what happened to Meredith Troutman of Fayetteville.

Troutman, a biology major, wants to become a marine biologist. She wanted to attend UNC-Wilmington but was not accepted. She decided to go to WCU for her undergraduate degree.

“It’s a change of scene,” she said. “I’ve never lived in the mountains, and the people are really friendly.

Since Troutman plans to become a marine biologist she will have to transfer to another school to complete her degree.

“I am going to have to transfer at some point,” she said.

Just as schools like WCU, ASU and UNCG are experiencing a surge in freshman applicants, so are schools like UNC and North Carolina State. Students who used to have the credentials to get in those schools are being turned down and end up at a college that wasn’t their first choice.

Freshman Garrett Powell of Charlotte is at Western because he says “it was easy to get into.”

Powell did not apply to any other state university. He says he liked WCU because it was located in the mountains.

“It’s real laid back here,” he said.

Powell is majoring in the university’s entrepreneurship program. It’s this specific program that attracted him to consider Western for his degree.

“Its not offered at many places,” he said.

The academic requirements to attend Appalachian State University are similar to Western. Students must have an average GPA of 3.8 and must have score of 1,190 on their SAT’s. Admission workers also look at the student’s entire application and make a decision based on a variety of factors, they said.

At UNCG, the average SAT score for the fall 2007 freshmen class was 1,039.


Staying is the hard part

At any university, many freshmen tend to drop out of school during their first year. At Western, 12 percent of the 2007 freshman class has dropped out.

LaDue’s roommate has already dropped out. She lives in Walker Hall and says that the dormitory is becoming a lot quieter since the beginning of the school year.

“There are at least six people on my floor that have lost their roommates,” she said.

LaDue says many of her freshmen classmates have dropped out after skipping too many classes.

“You have to go to class if you want to stay here,” she said.

Officials says the dropout rate at WCU is low, but Western is also a small school. Hinson says that more students are staying at Western because they want to be at the university.

“We are getting students who love the town of Cullowhee and want to be here,” he said.

He also says that the school works very closely with students through its advising department to help them when problems arise.

At Appalachian State, about 13. 4 percent of the freshman class has dropped out so far. At the University of North Carolina Greensboro the school had 10.4 percent of students leave after one semester.


Changing times

As more students look to WCU to be their alma mater, professors at the school are seeing new dynamics take place in the classroom. At least that’s what Dr. Richard Starnes, professor of history, has experienced in several freshman classes he teaches.

Starnes says the higher SAT and GPA scores are making an impact in the classroom.

“Five years ago the freshman tended to be more drawn from Western North Carolina,” he said. “But now we are seeing a good level of students from outside WNC. We are getting a good mix of urban and rural kids together, which is creating a good mix of diversity.”

Starnes says the new mix of students is creating a synergy in humanities classes

“That diversity is allowing us to explore issues that we might not otherwise have looked at years ago,” he said.

Beth Huber, director of freshman year composition, says first-year students are creating a positive impact in the classroom setting.

“I have seen quite a dramatic increase in academic preparation,” said Huber, who has been teaching English composition for the last three years.

She says more students are taking the subject more seriously and are not missing class like previous freshman classes.

“The students are writing better. I can see it,” she said. “They are working harder and they seem to want to do so.”

“Whatever the process the university is using, it’s working,” she added.

However, Jim Addison, an Honors English professor, says he has not see a change in the student’s academic performance.

“It’s been the same,” he said. Addison has been teaching at WCU for 28 years.

As Cowan ponders whether to run, a rematch in the making

Voters in Jackson County could have a rematch in the May primary between two candidates who ran against each other for county commissioner two years ago — Joe Cowan and Darrell Fox for the district that includes Webster and Cullowhee.

WCU launches ambitious $40 million campaign

Western Carolina University Chancellor John W. Bardo has officially launched the first comprehensive fundraising campaign in the university’s 118-year history, a drive to raise at least $40 million in private support to help meet a renewed emphasis on academic quality.

Broadway comes to Cullowhee

By Michael Beadle

He’s been a Beast. An alien bounty hunter. A Rum Tum Tugger and Inspector Javert.

And now two-time Tony Award-winning actor Terrence Mann is bringing his Broadway, film and TV talents to Western Carolina University as director of “The Music Man.” The musical, which runs Feb. 22-25 at the university’s Fine and Performing Arts Center, is Mann’s directorial debut at Western Carolina.

WCU buys on-campus commercial buildings

Western Carolina University is now the proud owner of the strip of commercial property known locally as the downtown Cullowhee business district.

Biodiesel station opens in Cullowhee

By Sarah Kucharski • Staff Writer

The delivery of 3,000 gallons of B-20 biodiesel manufactured by Smoky Mountain Biofuels made Hop’s Gas and Grocery on Old Cullowhee Road the first station to offer a public biodiesel pump west of Asheville last week.

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