Honors College experience draws high-performing students to WCU

Junior emergency medical care major Emma Hand is an Honors College Scholar, as well as a Chancellor’s Ambassador.

On Sept. 5, when enrollment is finalized, Western Carolina University expects to announce record-breaking enrollment for the fifth year in the last six. We’ll also be able to officially report a growth of more than 20 percent in the last decade, a trend completely counter to enrollment declines happening across the country. In our series, WCU Thrives, we explore some of the programs and people that have played a role in our incredible momentum.

Today, we highlight the popularity and success of WCU’s Honors College through the eyes of one of its students.

 Celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, Western Carolina University’s Honors College was the first residential honors college in the University of North Carolina system and remains the largest, as a percentage of total enrollment. Founded in 1997 with 77 students, the Honors College has grown to more than 1,300 students who live and study together under the mentorship of top faculty at WCU. To provide a unique look at why students seek out WCU’s Honors College, the following is a first-person account of junior Emma Hand’s experience as an Honors College Scholar:

 Western Carolina University’s Honors College has been absolutely incredible since I started here three years ago.

I began my journey at WCU in the summer, just after graduating high school and just before starting my freshman year. I came to WCU for a month-long program called Catamount Gap. Of course, having just graduated from high school and not wanting to ‘waste’ my summer at school, I was apprehensive about the program at first. However, once I arrived, I was so very glad that I had chosen to attend.

Catamount Gap offers several tracks, one of which is exclusively for Honors College students. So, I had the chance to meet and make friends with other students just like me. We took three Honors classes – two classes that fulfilled liberal studies requirements and one forum-type class that introduced us to the Honors College and WCU. With the help of the college’s associate dean, April Tallant, and honors adviser Colin Townsend, we were sent out to discover campus. We also learned about undergraduate research, the different student clubs and organizations that were available on campus, how to navigate Blackboard and myWCU and much more. But we also had fun. There were so many activities to choose from. We went white-water rafting 9 miles down the Nantahala River, spent July 4 at a local park in Sylva, took a canoeing/hiking trip to a waterfall and rock-climbed at the Campus Recreation Center, just to name a few. Being a part of that summer program was such a great decision, and one that I treasure even now. I was able to attain Honors credit early, figure out how to best succeed at college, make a solid group of friends and take on freshman year with confidence.

I also am an Honors College Scholar, a merit scholarship program specifically for Honors College students. As an Honors College Scholar, I have had even more opportunities that pushed me to grow personally. For example, this past spring I took a pilot class (English 352 – “Journey Into Literature”) with associate professor Brian Railsback. As a class, we organized and executed a community service project in which we helped raise money and collect canned good items for United Christian Ministries, a local organization that helps and counsels those in need. We also wrote a 3,000-4,000 word ethical paper along the guidelines of the Elie Wiesel Foundation’s Prize in Ethics Essay Contest. When I learned about the assignment, I did not believe that I could write to that caliber. However, I pleasantly surprised myself with my finished product. We also put together a three-minute speech about our subject. Professor Railsback coordinated it so that we presented our speeches at the Honors Scholars Lecture Hall in Highlands, with alumni of the Honors Scholars program coming to watch. I was so nervous. I do not like speaking in front of audiences. The thought of having to talk in front of not only my classmates but other graduated Honors Scholars was enough to make me panic. With the help of Professor Railsback, though, I survived and actually awed everyone with my presentation. The provost, Alison Morrison-Shetlar, attended the event too, and my paper was one of two that she requested a copy of from Professor Railsback.

The Honors College has been and continues to be a support system and resource for me. The staff involved are so supportive and hardworking; their doors are always open. With resume review workshops, pre-professional advising (which is helpful for me as a pre-medicine student), Honors advising, service projects, pertinent information and even simple advice, the Honors College is a truly remarkable establishment. As I continue my path to a career in medicine, I will always be able to use what I have gained from WCU to guide me. I am so grateful to be not only a Western Carolina Catamount, but an Honors College student as well.