Students, pets, pets, students. It seems to be one or the other for Western Carolina University senior Sarah Bennett, who graduates in May with a biology degree and an eye on veterinary school. But until then, she’s wrapping up her senior year ensuring the two-legged friends she cares for as a resident assistant have had a successful year and are ready to head home for the summer.
Bennett, a 2014 graduate of Mallard Creek High School in Charlotte, has spent the last two-and-a-half of her four years at WCU working as a resident assistant – or RA – in Balsam Hall, an Honors College residence hall, helping students (especially freshmen) adjust to life away from home. “It’s kind of like being a den mom,” she said. “I have over 50 residents, honors students, that I check on and take care of. You know, ‘Is everybody good? Is everybody having fun?’”
In addition to a nominal salary and reduced housing costs, the position gave Bennett a chance to repay WCU for the gracious patience it extended to her as a surly freshman four years earlier. “When I first came to Western, my first week or two on campus I hated my life because I was three hours away from home and had never been that far away for that length of time,” she said. “After a while, I started making friends and they started pulling me out to do things, which made me more comfortable on campus. I wanted to do the same thing for residents who were feeling how I had felt, and say, ‘Oh, you’re not getting out? Well, let’s go.’ Or, ‘Let’s find you something to do.’”
With four years of veterinary medical school on the horizon, Bennett is grateful for the job and for the roughly $2,300 in endowed scholarships she received, namely the Dean Carroll Plemmons and I Love WCU scholarships. Bennett plans to work a year after graduation and study for the Graduate Record Exam before applying to North Carolina State University College of Veterinary Medicine.
But first things first. As soon as school is out, Bennett will exchange residence hall life for kennel life when she returns to VCA Stoney Creek Animal Hospital in Charlotte, where she first started working as an intern in the summer of 2016, thanks to an internship class in the WCU Department of Biology. She works with kennel staff in a “buffer zone” caring for dogs who have been boarded or are in doggie day care. “I’m also working under veterinarians and vet techs, helping them with exams, shots and things like that,” she said.
Bennett found traction at WCU as an RA and as a four-year member of the Honors College Student Board of Directors, which supplies student input on policy and programming issues to Honors College Dean Jill Granger. Bennett currently serves as the board’s president and last year was its vice president, roles that have highlighted her leadership strength, said Granger.
“Sarah has helped the board to continue its impact into the larger community by working to develop a new community partnership with Smokey Mountain Elementary School – a reading project that brings our WCU students into classrooms to read with children,” Granger said. “She also is very committed to the leadership development of the other students on the board, helping to send delegations of our board leaders to give presentations at conferences of both the North Carolina Honors Association and the National Collegiate Honors Council. Sarah’s level of engagement as board president sets a high bar for those who will come after her.”
Bennett credits WCU’s small classes, faculty, the Honors College and a handful of mentors and other WCU folks with helping to nudge her out of her shell – among them Chancellor David O. Belcher.
It was spring semester 2015 – Bennett’s first year, Belcher’s fourth – when a shy (yet bold?) freshman asked to shadow Belcher for an English class writing assignment. Her skeptical professor, Pamela Duncan, asked her if she had a backup plan. “Sure, I have a backup plan,” said Bennett. In reality, she did not.
Belcher obliged and exceeded Bennett’s request for an hour or two of his time by inviting her to spend the day with him and Jeff Ray, dean of WCU’s College of Engineering and Technology, on a whirlwind visit to Murphy. They had lunch with a local community college president and area economic development officials, toured a manufacturing plant and the construction site for the new Harrah’s casino, where Belcher, according to Ray, went “bounding up construction scaffolding into the upper floors [to] see the count room under construction, all with a hard hat and safety glasses on.” After an alumni event, the trio returned to Cullowhee at 9 p.m.
“We spent 13 hours in Murphy,” said Bennett, her dry wit sparkling.
“I’ll always remember that day since it was one of the most tiring days of my career, keeping up with Chancellor Belcher,” said Ray. “I drove home, told my wife, ‘I’m exhausted,’ and went directly to bed.”
Bennett also remembers that it was St. Patrick’s Day, March 17, 2015. “We were all wearing purple and Dr. Belcher said, ‘Oh, we forgot to wear green,’” she said.
But it was during the 90-minute drive from Cullowhee to Murphy that Bennett, sitting quietly in the back seat with Belcher at the wheel, prodding her to talk, transformed from reticent freshman to curious student and began to see Belcher as someone more than THE CHANCELLOR.
Belcher reminded her of a parent in his determination to get her talking, she said. “But the part that just made it great was when I was asking questions. I learned more about his past, where he grew up, what made him start playing the piano and how he met his wife,” she said.
Bennett credits Ray with breaking the ice by asking questions of his own. “I have to admit I was also a bit in awe as a new dean, spending a full day with Chancellor Belcher,” said Ray. “I don’t recall what questions I began asking, but it was mostly about my excitement to be at WCU and his thoughts on the future of the university. The next thing I knew, Sarah was asking questions like an investigative reporter the rest of the trip, and I found myself gaining incredible knowledge about our chancellor. The one question I will never forget was, ‘What will happen to WCU if you decide to leave for a different institution? Chancellor Belcher’s answer was succinct and to the point: ‘I’m not the university. What happens if I get hit by a bus tomorrow? The university will continue to move forward.’”
Bennett admitted that once she hit her stride, questioning her chancellor was fun because he shared so much of his personal and professional background with her, plus lots of lessons, tips and tricks on how to interview for a job. “One of the things I did ask him was, ‘What do you want students who want to be like you to know?’ He said, ‘Learn how to write exceptionally well and learn how to speak exceptionally well, because no matter what job you’re going to, that’s what they’re looking for.’”
In December, before Belcher went on medical leave after battling brain cancer since April 2016, Bennett saw him at the Holiday Open House for WCU student leaders at the Chancellor’s Residence. They reminisced about the day a shy freshman sat self-consciously in the backseat of her university chancellor’s car mustering the courage to ask a question. “I told him, ‘I remember everything about that day,’ and he said, ‘Me too.’ I told him I remembered asking him what he wanted to be remembered for and that he had said, ‘As the chancellor who moved the needle.’ And I said to him, ‘You did it.’”
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