Campaign: Geology professor starts scholarship

Above: Amy Kunst, an earth science education student, is the first recipient of a scholarship started by geology professor Steve Yurkovich.

Above: Amy Kunst, an earth science education student, is the first recipient of a scholarship started by geology professor Steve Yurkovich.

For more than 30 years, geology professor Steve Yurkovich has taught students history – ancient history. Yurkovich takes them back more than 450 million years to the collision of the North American and African plates that formed the Appalachian Mountains. He has shown them how to read geological clues in the rocks during field trips to rock formations near the Jarrett House in Dillsboro, Arby’s in Sylva, Mount Rogers in Virginia and points further west.

Campaign for Western graphicActing on his love of teaching and of geology, and his late wife Valerie Yurkovich’s passion for teaching earth sciences at the high school level, he established an endowed scholarship at Western that will be given annually to geology or earth science education students.

Campaign_logo09“Both of us had good experiences with the institution, and I thought it was time to give something back,” said Yurkovich. He came to work at WCU in 1971, and his wife earned her master’s degree in science education at Western. Their shared interest in earth sciences led them to take many hikes as well as a five-week tour of national parks out west. The idea of starting a scholarship popped in his head after the launch of The Campaign for Western and the opportunity it presented to fill unmet needs. “I see many students come into our program and have to take a job in addition to their academic work,” said Yurkovich. “I thought this scholarship might help them.”

Yurkovich said the program at Western is very strong and has a hands-on research element that begins during the freshman year. Students have explored the feasibility of removing Dillsboro Dam, mapped the geology of the local area, studied local groundwater conditions, evaluated the restoration of Cullowhee Creek and monitored conditions of once-plentiful rivercane sought by members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.Many graduates continue their educations, become educators or pursue jobs in geotechnical or environmental consulting.

This spring, the first scholarship was awarded to Amy Kunst, a senior earth science education major from Jacksonville. Kunst will receive $1,000 for the fall semester. Kunst said she came to Western to study elementary education, but after taking some geology courses chose to major in secondary earth science education.“The two courses I took with Dr. Yurkovich, were, hands-down, the most challenging courses I have taken to date,” said Kunst. “He is a great teacher. I learned a lot about geology, and I also learned about myself as a learner and as a future teacher.”

Yurkovich said Kunst has been his student and his advisee, and that the scholarship committee made a wonderful choice. “She is a brilliant student,” he said. “Amy exemplifies the characteristics of a good educator. She has a strong scientific background, possesses an intellectual curiosity about science, and has a passion to teach younger students.”

Jim Manring, senior director of development and executive director of the campaign, said gifts such as Yurkovich’s show how much the faculty and staff at Western care about the university and the success of their students.“Dr. Yurkovich’s creation of this important fund means much to Western and to advancing the study of geology and earth sciences. However, it will mean the most to the students who benefit directly every year from his thoughtfulness,” said Manring.