What is important in life? How do we make sense of suffering in the world? What, if anything, should we do?

Three alumnae whose philosophy classes at WCU often delved into the big questions have taken their studies to a higher level. (Above, from left) Esther Ransom Meeks ’15, Melissa Bradley ’15 and Mandy Long ’14 enrolled in doctoral programs in philosophy at top universities in the fall of 2016. Meeks is at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Bradley is studying at Villanova (Pennsylvania) University; and Long attends the University of Connecticut in Storrs.

Having three alumni in doctoral programs at the same time is notable because of the small size of WCU’s program, which has about 40 philosophy and religion majors at any given time, said John Whitmire, department head of philosophy and religion. “It’s also rare because there are only about 110 Ph.D. programs in philosophy in the United States, and it’s not uncommon for each of those to get 100 to 200 applications for somewhere between five and 15 slots each year. To have three students who graduated from one regional comprehensive university matriculating in one year is going to be really, really rare,” he said.

The fact that all three candidates are women also is a rarity. Philosophy programs typically have mostly men. “Although that is, thankfully, beginning to change now,” Whitmire said. “I’d like to think that we’re helping, in some small way, to move the profession in the right direction.”

Philosophy majors often seek careers in the helping professions, such as counseling, social work and teaching. Long, Bradley and Meeks are all considering college or university teaching for the future. Long, who has a bachelor’s degree in psychology with a minor in philosophy, may pursue a public policy career. Bradley, who majored in history and philosophy at WCU, is interested in humanitarian work and political organizations committed to social change. Meeks has studied conflict resolution and reconciliation at Trinity College in Dublin as part of a cross-border program with Belfast, Northern Ireland. She will teach undergraduates next year at Marquette and expects to find out then if the teaching profession is a good fit. “If not, following my experience in Northern Ireland, I may try to get involved in peace work. My research so far has been on philosophy of forgiveness, which has some pretty real-world applications,” she said.