During the summer of 1997, Western Carolina University began its Honors College with 77 students, individual and collective goals, and an understanding that more was to come. From then – as the first residential honors college in the University of North Carolina System – until now as the system’s largest, with more than 1,200 students, the WCU Honors College strives to help high-achieving students gain more from their undergraduate experience.

The Honors College selects potential students with a high level of academic excellence. They are invited to live in Balsam Hall or Blue Ridge Hall, where they engage in activities planned by the student-run Honors College Board and become part of a vigorous living-learning community.

The recent completion of 20 years of existence provides more of an opportunity to look ahead than a time to reflect, said Jill Granger, Honors College dean since July 2015. “We’re looking holistically, inside and out, as we evaluate the program and think about what the next 10 to 20 years will look like,” Granger said.

Granger said that while the Honors College is physically located in the central part of campus, she believes it is located centrally for the university academically, as well. “The Honors College embraces the mission of the university, through access and in terms of empowerment for students,” she said. “Students are not limited in majors they pursue. We don’t have requirements along the lines of other honors colleges. What WCU has is the honors path. We tell students, ‘Here are the things that will add value to your experience, these are the people to reach out to, now set your own path.’”

A top priority for Honors College staff is to encourage new students to immediately begin considering what they’re going to do after earning a bachelor’s degree. Many students go on to work on master’s and doctoral degrees. An example is Chequita Brooks ’16, a Lansing native now pursuing a doctorate in biology across the state at East Carolina University.

“I am a first-generation college student and was one of those people who, as soon as I arrived at Western, thought, ‘This is my home,’” Brooks said. “Starting college was a homecoming, and being invited to the Honors College made it even more fantastic and fulfilling – living in the dorm, participating in that community, working with the (Honors College) dean. That experience is what led me to want to pursue a career in academia. There’s nothing more I would want than to be in a teaching position.”

Brooks said the guidance she received as an honors student and the variety of opportunities for new experiences helped shape her career interests. Her undergraduate research was supported by a grant supplied through the Honors College, along with support to travel to the 30th anniversary National Conference on Undergraduate Research to give an oral presentation.

Each semester, Honors College students work with faculty members and advisers to design particular course work and co-curricular experiences that will challenge and enrich them.

“I like to tell friends that my WCU Honors College experience was akin to going to a small liberal arts college that happened to be in the middle of a big university,” said James Hogan ’03. “I benefited from all of the opportunities Western Carolina University had to offer, but my Honors College classes were small, well integrated and challenging. We understood how subjects were interrelated because our professors collaborated on curriculum. The cohort of peers I lived with in Reynolds Hall became lifelong friends. I would readily put my Honors College diploma head-to-head with anyone else from a Research 1-level university or private college.”

Brian Railsback, now a professor in the WCU English Department, served as founding dean after directing the university’s Honors Program in 1996 and 1997. He remembers the humble beginnings in Room G55 in the Stillwell Building, with challenges both big and small. But his biggest takeaway is how the trust placed in honors students – then and now – to chart the college’s future paid off.

Railsback formed the highly engaged Honors College Advisory Board and fostered the establishment of an endowment designed to help students compete for prestigious scholarships. He also set up a student board of directors for the college. He guided the college from a room with no furniture in Stillwell to better facilities in Reynolds and, along with honors students, played a key role in the design of the college’s current home in Balsam and Blue Ridge residence halls.

Railsback said the initial success of the Honors College was based in allowing students to help establish the foundation and create its direction. “I’d gathered up all these slick, expensive brochures from honors colleges across the country and handed them out to students, and said ‘What if we came up with something like this.’ They said ‘That won’t work, it’s inauthentic and the bottom line is we wouldn’t look at this. What we’d rather have are personalized letters sent to us.’ They also said ‘If you want us and we are qualified, why have us do essays, applications and other requirements? Why make us jump through hoops?’

“So we made it accessible,” he said. “Our model had to be much more integrated than the examples we saw at other universities. When we first presented our plan to Chancellor John Bardo, he told us ‘Well, it’s not what I had envisioned, but you have confidence in it, so let’s do it.’ I credit the advice that students gave me with the rapid growth we had, being able to raise admission standards and build the facility to accommodate the Honors College.”

Hogan, speaking from the perspective of the first Honors College alumnus to sit on its board of advisers, reiterates that point. “Western’s Honors College is successful because it was allowed to position students at the center of its vision,” he said. “That isn’t meant to be any kind of corporate or college administrator-speak. The Honors College has always prioritized putting students front and center, giving them ownership over the college, and clearing the path of any obstacles they might face. It is fundamentally empowering to a student for his or her college to do such a thing, and it inspires that student’s creativity and educational discovery much more than other models. Its students have designed courses, built buildings and directed countless undergraduate research projects in service to its students, and that characteristic has become a signature over the two-decade history of the college.”

While the Honors College has taken students beyond conventional curriculum and produced well-rounded graduates, it also has proven to be an outstanding representative for the entire university, alumni of the college say.

“Because every segment of the WCU community – faculty, staff, administration, residence hall personnel and alumni – was invested in the Honors College’s growth from the start, a cohesive community of high-achieving scholars took hold by the early 2000s, reshaping the academic character and reputation of the university beyond what anyone at WCU in the 1990s could have foreseen,” said Brandon A. Robinson ’05 MA ’10, chair of the WCU Board of Visitors. “This has been one of the Honors College’s greatest legacies in the institution’s history. In the 18 years I have been affiliated with WCU in some way, I have seen and heard of a new WCU in the minds of people across North Carolina.”

Scholarship and endowment support also has grown, especially in the past six years under the leadership of Chancellor David O. Belcher, who made increasing the number of endowed scholarships the No. 1 philanthropic priority of his administration. Leading by example, in October he and his wife established the David O. and Susan B. Belcher Scholarship for Honors College students, with Jordan Parker as the first recipient. Honors College officials are hopeful additional endowments and scholarships will be forthcoming to keep pace with the college’s needs.

Since 2007, another resource for Honors College needs has been an advisory board, primarily made up of community members from neighboring Highlands. The board serves as an external advisory council for the dean, drawing from professional expertise in medical, legal, business and academic careers. Board members also give practical advice to honors students, said Mark Whitehead, board chair, which can range from dress-for-success tips to introducing students to a variety of social situations.

“Foreign travel is encouraged for all the wonderful things it allows and to aid in gaining competitive scholarships,” Whitehead said. That and facilitating networking with professionals are aspects the advisory board has worked hard to make possible for honors students, he said.

The advisory board holds an annual meeting with the Honors College board of directors, consisting entirely of honors students who nominate and elect their own officers. “Another thing the advisory board did that has proven vital was to establish an emergency fund for the discretionary use of the dean, to assist students in need,” said Whitehead’s wife, Kathy. “Sometimes an unforeseen expense stands between students and continuing their education.”

Granger said WCU’s Honors College has become a national model of excellence for honors colleges in its first 20 years. “In our most recent program review, we were called the envy of honors colleges. We’ve had best practices in place and the Honors College was developed and designed with the future in mind,” she said. “Twenty years is just the start of our success.”