UNC system office endorses WCU’s three areas of distinction

Start of fall semester activities included the Warriors of AniKituhwa, a traditional Cherokee dance group, visiting campus to provide a cultural immersion experience for students, faculty and staff related to the campuswide learning theme for the new academic year – “Cherokee: Community. Culture. Connections.” In the photo, a member of the group demonstrates the use of a blowgun for WCU students. One of the university’s approved areas of distinction involves connecting learning opportunities to the area’s unique cultural resources.

The University of North Carolina system’s General Administration has endorsed three mission-focused academic areas of interest in which Western Carolina University will work to achieve significant regional or national attention by the 2021-22 school year.

The approved areas of distinction for WCU are cultural and environmental immersion, an effort to connect learning opportunities across the curriculum to the university’s unique environmental and cultural resources; service and outreach, in which students learn how to analyze and solve challenges through field-based service activities with regional partners; and experience-based learning, where students earn real-world practice in their field of choice through activities such as internships, project-based learning, capstone projects, and undergraduate and graduate research.

WCU and the other UNC institutions are identifying academic areas of distinction as part of a new system-wide strategic plan unrolled in January built around five strategic directions – access, student success, affordability and efficiency, economic impact and community engagement, and excellent and diverse institutions. The areas of distinction fall under the plan’s strategic direction of excellent and diverse institutions, with the goal of strengthening the reputation and accomplishments of the entire UNC system by strengthening the reputation and accomplishments of individual institutions.

Presentation of the UNC campuses’ areas of distinction occurred during the UNC Board of Governors meeting last week in Chapel Hill.

Lowell Davis, WCU’s assistant vice chancellor for student success, led the campus effort to develop a list of potential areas of distinction, working with a group of faculty, staff and students and distributing a survey to the campus and to alumni soliciting ideas.

Hundreds of ideas were received, and it became clear early in the process which specific aspects of the WCU culture should be recognized as areas of distinction, Davis said. The university’s Executive Council reviewed and refined descriptions, metrics and timelines for each area, integrating programming from across campus and longstanding elements of campus culture, he said.

“The areas of distinction selected for Western Carolina University take advantage of existing strengths and high-impact learning activities that are already engrained in our institutional DNA,” Davis said. “For example, our location in one of the most biodiverse areas of the world combined with our proximity to the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and the unique heritage of our Southern Appalachian setting provides a logical area of distinction in the category of cultural and environmental immersion.”

Similarly, service learning and community engagement have become a core practice at WCU through existing partnerships with businesses and industry, local governments, nonprofit groups, schools and health care organizations, he said.

Under experience-based learning, WCU has several programs that stress hands-on educational activities designed to help prepare students for successful careers after graduation, and those efforts provide a strong foundation for expansion to other programs, Davis said.

“We believe that WCU demonstrates distinction in these three academic areas and will be able to achieve an even higher level of distinction and recognition as we work to implement the goals associated with each area,” he said.

The complete areas of distinction proposal approved by General Administration, including baseline data, metrics and targets, can be seem at this web page.