New WCU office will assist students in pursuing big-time academic awards

Highlands resident Bob May (left) is providing financial support to help WCU’s new Office of National and International Awards get off the ground. The office is directed by English professor Brian Railsback (right.)

Highlands resident Bob May (left) is providing financial support to help WCU’s new Office of National and International Awards get off the ground. The office is directed by English professor Brian Railsback (right.)

With the recent establishment of Western Carolina University’s Office of National and International Awards, an effort has begun to provide the best-of-the-best students at the university with the tools they need to compete for top awards such as the Rhodes, Fulbright, Marshall and Truman, said WCU English professor Brian Railsback.

Railsback returned to teaching in WCU’s Department of English after stepping down from his position as dean of the Honors College, WCU’s academic community for high-achieving students, in June of 2015. He is now founding director of the Office of National and International Awards and is overseeing its activities from his faculty office in Coulter Building.

Reporting to the provost and working in conjunction with a faculty council, Railsback said he will collaborate with faculty and staff to “identify students with exceptional passion and intellectual drive, particularly in research and service, and to connect them with appropriate awards programs that support the students’ visions.”

“The key is a strong faculty and staff network that will identify good prospects, followed up by solid faculty and staff mentoring of students who apply for awards,” he said.

The process of working with an individual student might entail a period of weeks or months, or a situation might include identifying a gifted freshman and working with that student for several years, until the time the student seeks an award. As director, Railsback said he plans to facilitate the most appropriate mentoring for the students and seek out the most relevant resources at the university to enhance the students’ applications for awards.

While a goal of the office will be to help students capture the top national and international awards, just the process of applying for those honors is often a transformative experience for them in terms of their educational development, Railsback said. “By increasing the number of WCU applicants and, subsequently, the number of students who win competitive awards, the office will enhance our students’ academic success and WCU’s academic reputation in the state, nation and abroad,” he said.

Jill Granger, dean of the Honors College, said the efforts of the new office will be “a huge asset” for all WCU students. “It will heighten awareness of these prestigious opportunities among students and faculty, and it also will help support students over their time at WCU to be well-prepared for and competitive in their pursuit of these prestigious awards,” she said.

Becoming aware of potential national and international awards early in their college careers can be particularly inspiring for students and result in them creating a plan for academic and co-curricular experiences that can “pave the road” toward receiving the awards, Granger said.

The Office of National and International Awards will be looking to work with exceptional students from throughout WCU’s student body and from all the academic colleges and majors, said WCU Provost Alison Morrison-Shetlar.

“There are excellent and well-rounded students at WCU who have what it takes to bring home these most prestigious awards,” Morrison-Shetlar said. “The faculty and staff can help identify those students with potential to be successful candidates for these awards, and this office and the faculty involved can help mentor the students to success. It’s going to be exciting to see what opportunities open up for our students as this new office begins its work.”

As the Office of National and International Awards gets off the ground, Railsback said the effort is receiving external help from a benefactor from Highlands who is a regular supporter of the Honors College. Bob May, who is a partner in an investment firm, and his wife, Ginny, are providing $15,000 to support the office initiatives, and among the uses of those funds is the establishment of a grant program to provide support for students to travel, attend conferences and participate in other activities that will enhance their preparation for pursuing awards. Fred Hinson, who retired from WCU as senior associate vice chancellor for academic affairs, also is providing financial support for the new office.

May, a member of the Honors College Advisory Board, said he feels fortunate to have received the education he did after growing up in eastern Kentucky, and he and his wife want to assist WCU students “who have a sense of drive and continued achievement.”

May said he has enjoyed his time meeting and getting to know high-achieving WCU students over the past several years, and he hopes the new office provides an incentive for them to achieve even more. “The only reward I would ever want is to meet and listen to students talk about what they’ve been doing. It just makes my day,” he said.

The new office’s action plan for the current academic year includes meeting with admissions staff to integrate the office into the university’s enrollment management plan, getting word out to the university community about the role of the office, holding a training session in spring semester for interested faculty and staff members, and developing a website. Also during the spring semester, Railsback will be teaching a course in written communication that is specifically designed for students interested in applying for awards.

Railsback said he expects the effort to help WCU students win prestigious academic awards to take flight in a manner similar to the university’s participation in the annual National Conference on Undergraduate Research. WCU’s first contingent to that conference in 1997 included several student presenters, but the university’s students are now a prominent presence at NCUR and have ranked in the top 10 among the nation’s colleges and universities in terms of student participation for the past 11 years.

For more information about the Office of National and International Awards, contact Railsback at 828-227-3933.