It took awhile for Joanna Woodson to discover her true passion in life. But three universities and year and a half in the workplace later, Woodson has found her purpose, along with a home, at Western Carolina University.
After a year at WCU, Woodson has not only settled on a major, she’s discovered a passion for politics that has led WCU to become a leader in voter participation across the University of North Carolina system.
As the nation enters a wildly debated political season, Woodson is at the center of sometimes heated and extremely important discussions among students at WCU.
This fall, the university will be publishing a series of stories about Woodson and her efforts to make WCU’s campus more engaged, not just in the upcoming presidential election, but also in the many local, regional and state elections that drive policy decisions that affect us every day.
Woodson’s journey to WCU features a series of twists. Upon graduating from high school, the Monroe native went to North Carolina State as a religious studies major. She then transferred to UNC Asheville as a journalism major, which later turned to political science. While enrolled at UNC Asheville, Woodson said she studied abroad through UNC Charlotte.
From there, Woodson dropped out of school for about a year and a half working for a law firm briefly, working as a manager at New York and Co., and being an Uber driver. In between, health issues left her frustrated with the nation’s health care system.
Eventually, Woodson’s boyfriend, Mick Cauthen, a former WCU student and former member of the Pride of the Mountains Marching Band, suggested they finish their studies at WCU. During her time out of school, Woodson did some volunteer work at Safe Alliance, a rape crisis center in Charlotte. It was there she realized she wanted to do social work.
“In the code of ethics for social work, social justice is mandated,” Woodson said. “Even now when I talk to my peers, it sometimes feels like I’m the only one not going into direct client care. I always preach that social work isn’t just individual clients though. It’s also changing policy.”
When Woodson came to WCU for the 2015-16 school year, the junior social work major knew she eventually wanted to be involved in the political realm where she could help change policies.
But it wasn’t until she immersed herself in politics and social activism on the WCU campus that Woodson truly realized what a powerful and effective voice she really had.
Since January, she has taken the lead in getting WCU students registered to vote for the upcoming November election. It’s a passion that started with being a student worker at the Center for Service Learning and carried over into her current internship at the Andrew Goodman Foundation, an organization that empowers young people to fully participate in the Democratic process.
The seeds for social activism were planted through Woodson’s life experiences, mostly involving unfavorable encounters with the health care system. For example, her mother has been taking a medication for years, but when her insurance changed this year, the price of that medication jumped to more than $2,000 a month, leaving Woodson with an even greater distaste for the healthcare system.
“I think the kicker in all of it is my mom has worked for the same health care system for 20 years and this is how she’s treated,” Woodson said. “There are no words for how that makes me feel.”
Through her leadership in getting students registered to vote, WCU had the second largest voter turnout among North Carolina colleges and universities for the March primary at 37 percent.
“I think her calmness, being calm and not being easily overwhelmed, in connection with composure are what make her a good leader,” said Lane Perry, director of the Center for Service Learning. “I think those are skills that I’m personally trying to manage and I’m 10 years her senior.
“I think she does such a good job with those spaces of being composed and articulate and thoughtful. And also her ability to organize people around an idea, which is what leaders can do because they have a clear vision, they are articulate in that vision and they’re inspiring in it as well.”
At WCU, Woodson discovered her passion is to reform the health care system through policy change.
“I understand the power of my own voice and my own abilities,” Woodson said.
Read the next story in this series HERE.