WCU nursing school receives grant: $2.1 million will launch 'Conway Scholars' initiative

Western Carolina University students in the School of Nursing are benefiting from the newly established Conway Scholars program. Donated photo Western Carolina University students in the School of Nursing are benefiting from the newly established Conway Scholars program. Donated photo

The Western Carolina University School of Nursing in Cullowhee is the recipient of a $2 million contribution from the Bedford Falls Foundation-DAF (“Bedford Falls”) that will provide scholarship support to undergraduate nursing students and enable the hiring of additional faculty to guide them in their clinical experiences. 

Bedford Falls, a donor-advised fund that supports a wide range of charitable and educational causes in the eastern U.S., also made an additional $100,000 contribution to WCU’s School of Nursing in memory of philanthropist Joanne Conway, who established Bedford Falls along with husband William “Bill” Conway.

She died Jan. 8, just two weeks after the signing of the gift agreement establishing the Joanne and William Conway Nursing Scholarship at WCU. Scholarship recipients will be known as Conway Scholars.

The $2.1 million total contribution from Bedford Falls represents the single largest donation in the history of WCU’s College of Health and Human Sciences and its School of Nursing, said Lori Anderson, dean of the college.

“Western Carolina University is honored to be a recipient of this support and greatly appreciates the philanthropic gift that the Conways have provided,” Anderson said. “This gift marks a milestone in our commitment to advancing health care education and underscores the generous support of our community partners. This generous gift is transformative and will have a profound impact on our students by significantly reducing financial barriers and allowing them to focus more intently on their studies and clinical training. The scholarship support made possible by this gift will alleviate the burden of educational expenses, promoting more equitable access to nursing education.”

Anderson called the contribution not just an investment in WCU’s School of Nursing, but also an investment in the health and well-being of people across the Western North Carolina region.

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“This generous gift will affect students, their families and the patients they will someday serve. It represents a forward-thinking approach to health care education and a commitment to addressing some of the most-pressing challenges in our health care system,” she said. “We are immensely grateful for this support and excited about the positive changes it will bring to our students, the college and the broader region.”

The Bedford Falls contributions to WCU are part of an ongoing effort to help provide more access to nursing education and solve a shortage of qualified nurses, Bill Conway said.

“Joanne was passionate about helping people improve their own lives and their communities,” he said. “We were first attracted to WCU because of its reputation for providing high-quality nursing education to the WNC region, which, like many areas of the country, is facing a critical nursing shortage. However, it was hearing the stories of students struggling to balance work and school that deeply moved Joanne and inspired us to action to help.”

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Joanne Conway

The contribution from Bedford Falls will help WCU combat the economic challenges and educational barriers that limit the nursing pipeline of local individuals from communities throughout WNC and reduce workforce diversity and the availability of culturally competent care, said Terri Durbin, director of the School of Nursing.

“Culturally sensitive care is critical to fostering trust and improving health outcomes, yet the need for nurses from or familiar with these communities hinders effective communication and trust-building,” Durbin said. “Addressing the nursing shortage in Appalachian and Indigenous communities requires targeted interventions, including investments in nursing education, support for nursing students from these backgrounds and enhancements to health care infrastructure.”

The gifts have already begun providing financial support to students in both traditional and accelerated bachelor’s degree programs in nursing and will do so through 2027. The average annual award to Conway Scholars is $2,000 for students in WCU’s traditional bachelor’s degree program and $1,250 for those in the accelerated track who have bachelor’s degrees from regionally accredited colleges or universities and are looking to pursue a career in nursing.

More than 15% of students in the WCU School of Nursing receive federal Pell Grant support, which is one indicator of financial need but does not reflect all students who have financial need.

With the Bedford Falls gift, the School of Nursing can more than quadruple the number of scholarships awarded and has already more than doubled the total amount of scholarship support for students in the first semester of awards. Every WCU student who is trying to become a nurse is receiving financial support.

Among the inaugural Conway Scholars is Jennifer Chung, a junior from Arden who entered the accelerated nursing track last year and who called the scholarship “a true godsend.”

“I was a CPA but decided to go back to school to study nursing so I can make a tangible difference in people’s lives,” Chung said. “This donation allows me to focus on training to be a competent nurse and not worry about whether I can make my next tuition payment.”

Asheville resident Cameron Klemmons is another second-year nursing student at WCU who is changing her career path through the accelerated program as a Conway Scholar.

“I received my bachelor’s and master’s degrees in social work and worked as a social worker for about seven years prior to starting in the ABSN program,” Klemmons said. “The scholarship was greatly appreciated as it helped to take some of the financial burden in regard to the cost of tuition off of my family.”

The Bedford Falls contributions also will provide additional resources to hire part-time and adjunct clinical faculty for continued expansion of enrollment both in Cullowhee and at WCU’s off-campus instructional site at Biltmore Park in Asheville. The gifts come at a critical time for the nursing program at WCU and the profession in general, said Durbin.

“Expanding our faculty is crucial for maintaining high-quality education and mentorship, enabling us to accommodate more students and enhance our program offerings,” she said. “The nursing shortage is a pressing issue both regionally and nationally.”

Recent studies reveal that the country is facing a significant shortfall of registered nurses and forecast that tens of thousands of nursing positions will still need to be filled in the coming years. Adding to the nursing shortage is a growing population of aging adults who require more health care services. 

“Our initiative aims to mitigate this shortage by preparing more qualified nurses to enter the workforce. The nursing shortage in the United States significantly hampers health care delivery, with pronounced effects in Appalachian and Indigenous communities in Western North Carolina,” Durbin said. “These regions face substantial barriers to accessing health care services due to the limited availability of facilities and professionals, further aggravated by the nursing shortage.”

Because of the nursing shortage, patients are experiencing fewer health care services, longer wait times and potentially lower quality of care, reducing positive health outcomes and increasing disparities in these underserved populations, she said.

Bill Conway is co-founder of the Carlyle Group, a multinational private equity, alternative asset management and financial services corporation. Joanne Conway was CEO/owner of the Golden Door, a renowned health and wellness resort. She was initially inspired to support nursing students after a waitress at one of her favorite restaurants described the difficulties of being able to afford to go to nursing school.

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Bill Conway

The Conways, individually and through Bedford Falls and other philanthropic vehicles, have given or committed nearly $400 million to charitable organizations in the mid-Atlantic region, including 15 schools of nursing. 

“I know that our School of Nursing in our College of Health and Human Sciences will embody Joanne’s mission to empower individuals with skills and opportunities that lead to fulfilling employment,” WCU Chancellor Kelli R. Brown said. “We share her passion for and belief in the ability of education to transform lives. I feel buoyed by the knowledge that we will play some small part in helping carry out Joanne’s work and legacy.”

WCU established nursing education in 1969 to help meet a regional need for professional nurses, with the first bachelor’s degrees in nursing presented in 1973. Enrollment in the program remains strong, with a competitive applicant pool greater than the number of available seats for admission. First-time nursing licensure pass rates are at or near 100%, making WCU graduates highly employable, Anderson said.

The Bedford Falls gift comes as part of WCU’s “Fill the Western Sky” comprehensive fundraising campaign, an effort to raise $75 million for the university’s academic, student engagement and athletics programs. For more information or to make a contribu tion to the campaign, visit,  call 828.227.7124 or email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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