The Western Carolina University campus looked a bit like Raleigh-West as more than a dozen current and former members of the General Assembly and other state officials were among 200-plus who gathered Friday, March 2, for a ceremonial groundbreaking to mark the start of construction on WCU’s Tom Apodaca Science Building.
The new $110 million facility, made possible through funding from the 2016 statewide $2 billion Connect NC bond referendum, will replace WCU’s existing, 1970s-era Natural Sciences Building. Construction on the 182,989-square-foot, six story structure will begin later this year, followed by completion and occupancy by June 2021.
The building will include five stories of laboratory, classroom, assembly and office space, with the sixth story serving as a “mechanical penthouse.” It will feature a large, 150-person lecture hall, a science commons area on the first floor and a rooftop plaza for astronomy observations.
The WCU Board of Trustees voted in December 2016 to name the building in honor of former N.C. Sen. Thomas M. Apodaca in recognition of his years of service to and support of the Western North Carolina region and the university, including his time as a member of the WCU Board of Trustees and his extensive advocacy for the university.
“I’m enormously honored and deeply touched,” said Apodaca, a member of the WCU board from 1997 until he was elected to the N.C. Senate in 2002. “This center of science learning is actually a recognition of Western Carolina University’s importance. Our region of the state is often forgotten – but not today. More than anything, my hope is this building will represent opportunity for the future, including my god-daughter, Maloy, and new-born grandson, River.”
Patricia Kaemmerling, current chair of WCU’s trustees, characterized the Tom Apodaca Science Building as “a transformative facility.” “This building will offer Western Carolina University’s students the high-quality classrooms and laboratories necessary for a 21st-century education,” Kaemmerling said. “This building also will serve as a hub for regional economic development in Western North Carolina, capitalizing on the expertise of Western Carolina’s faculty.”
Kaemmerling and several other speakers called Apodaca, a 1980 graduate of WCU with a bachelor’s degree in business administration, a staunch advocate on behalf of his alma mater, whether as a member of the university’s Board of Trustees or in the halls of the General Assembly.
Margaret Spellings, president of the University of North Carolina System, called Apodaca’s relationship with WCU a model of the lasting relationship that every university seeks to establish with its students.
“Growing up in North Carolina, you went to Cullowhee, forged a deep bond with your school, then stayed in the region and launched a highly successful career creating companies, serving the state and ultimately succeeding at the highest levels of state government,” Spellings said, speaking to Apodaca. “And at every step along the way, you gave back to your alma mater, lifted it up alongside you and fought for it in Raleigh. And you’ve delivered results for this university, just as you delivered results for the entire UNC System and for the entire state.”
Alison Morrison-Shetlar, WCU acting chancellor, reminded the crowd assembled for the ceremony that the genesis for a new building focused on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (or STEM) programs began six years ago, when Chancellor David O. Belcher launched a master planning process to help align the physical plant of the campus with priorities of the then-newly launched strategic plan, titled “2020 Vision: Focusing Our Future.”
“That campus master plan proposed on this very spot behind me the construction of a state-of-the-art facility to anchor a new science quad for this portion of WCU’s historic campus,” Morrison-Shetlar said. “So began a quest in which Chancellor Belcher soon enlisted the support of one of WCU’s most prominent alumni, Senator Tom Apodaca. And with tireless advocacy, Chancellor Belcher and Senator Apodaca never gave up on this idea of a transformative STEM facility for Western’s campus.”
Phil Berger, president pro tempore of the N.C. Senate, said that ensuring a new science building at WCU was included in the Connect NC bond package is not the only example of Apodaca’s support for his university.
“Tom understands that college is a significant investment that leads to higher paying jobs, a better-skilled workforce and stronger local economies. He knows that escalating costs and rising student debt are threatening the value of that investment,” Berger said. “That’s why, as a state senator, he spearheaded the NC Promise program, which guarantees in-state undergraduate students at three public universities across our state – including Western Carolina University – pay just $1,000 in tuition each year.” The tuition plan kicks in this coming fall at WCU and at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke and Elizabeth City State University.
Richard Starnes, dean of WCU’s College of Arts and Sciences, shared statistics used in support of the 2016 bond referendum, and noted that when the current Natural Sciences Building was built, WCU enrolled about 6,000 students, 60 percent of them education majors, with a total of only 15 nursing majors and no engineering programs. Today, WCU has more than 600 students majoring in nursing, and nearly that number majoring in technology and engineering programs – all taking chemistry, biology and other science classes in a building ill-suited for 21st-century instruction.
“Buildings are important, and this one is sorely needed, but they pale in comparison to what happens in our buildings. Every day across this campus, our faculty guide students on their journeys by teaching them, challenging them, mentoring them, showing them what is possible,” Starnes said. “And every day, our students – whether they hail from Andrews or Ahoskie – inspire us with their energy, their promise and their limitless potential. This building will provide a state-of-the-art facility for our university to better fulfill that sacred calling of changing lives. For the people of our mountains and our state, there is nothing more important.”
The ceremony included a blessing delivered by Tom Belt, coordinator of WCU’s Cherokee Language Program, in recognition of the building’s location on a site of cultural significance to the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.