Thanks to the ongoing generosity of a husband and wife who divide their time between Highlands in the Western North Carolina mountains and Hilton Head Island in the South Carolina Lowcountry, Western Carolina University is one step closer toward its goal of being able to provide scholarship assistance to every Honors College student with financial need. Make that 1 million steps closer.

Jack and Judy Brinson, who previously made $1 million in gifts and commitments to support WCU students (primarily those in the Honors College), recently doubled down on their giving through a $1 million planned estate gift that pushes the couple’s giving total to the university to the $2 million mark.

In recognition of their legacy of giving, upon the settlement of the Brinsons’ estate, the university will name its residential college for high-achieving students the Brinson Honors College as approved by the WCU Board of Trustees in 2018.

The vision statement for the Honors College lists as its first goal to support every one of its students with financial need with a scholarship as a part of the student’s financial aid package. Currently, fewer than 30 percent of its students receive a scholarship from the college, said Jill Granger, Honors College dean.

“It is a huge honor to be given such trust and confidence,” Granger said. “The Brinsons believe in Western Carolina’s mission and love our students. They want to be a part of making a difference in the lives of these students, especially as they see tremendous potential in them. And they see the Honors College as a partner in working to make that happen.”

In addition to providing more scholarship support for Honors College students, the estate gift also will be used to create the Brinson Undergraduate Research Program Endowment to support undergraduate students in conducting intensive research with faculty mentors and the Brinson Honors College Study Abroad Endowment to support students with study abroad expenses.

“These are areas of the Honors College that Jack and Judy are so passionate about,” Granger said. “They have a true love of students and for helping people with need get access to education and educational opportunities.”

Although neither of the Brinsons are WCU alumni, they became connected to the institution after Phil Walker ’71, former chair of the Board of Trustees, asked Jack to join the Foundation Board of Directors in 2011 and after Highlands residents Mark and Kathy Whitehead asked Judy to consider joining the Honors College Advisory Board.

“Mark and Kathy had formed a very close relationship with (former Honors College) Dean Brian Railsback and other Western professors who came to Highlands to teach courses at the Center for Life Enrichment,” Judy Brinson said. “Through these associations, we learned just how important this university was to the entire region of Western North Carolina. It became clear to us that WCU filled a critical need in this area for students who otherwise would not be able to attend a four-year university.”  

Burgin Mackey

That led to an initial gift of $350,000, which they increased to the $1 million mark after being inspired by the $1.23 million pledge to WCU in October 2017 from then-Chancellor David O. Belcher and wife Susan Brummell Belcher. The Belchers’ pledge was a blend of cash donations and an estate gift.

“Our original support was for current scholarship needs, and we received many letters from students telling us how crucial these scholarships had been in allowing them to continue their education,” Jack Brinson said. “Neither of us came from wealthy backgrounds, and we are incredibly grateful for the opportunities and success we have enjoyed.  Giving back to these very deserving Western students has given us so much satisfaction.”  

The Brinsons made their recent $1 million estate gift in honor of their late sons, Kristopher and Kevin Brinson, as both a legacy for them and for the Honors College. “Every student who receives a Brinson Scholarship will continue to honor Kris and Kevin, and WCU will be stronger as well,” said Judy Brinson.

“We feel that the Honors College has been instrumental in attracting some of the best students in the state and elsewhere,” said Jack Brinson. “These students will be our future leaders.” 

Joy Johnston ’18

A total of 135 students to date have received support from Brinson annual gifts, a number that will increase dramatically over the years. Among those who have benefited is Joy Johnston ’18. “This scholarship helped immensely by taking some of the financial stress off my shoulders. College is stressful as is, and when you add in the money situation, it makes it even worse. Every bit of help matters,” said Johnston. 

Burgin Mackey, a junior from Mars Hill majoring in environmental health and Japanese studies, is also continuing his pursuit of a college degree with financial assistance made possible by the Brinsons’ gifts. “The Brinson Scholarship made it possible for me to complete my second year at Western. Coming from a background where money is tight, I rely on scholarships to help me pay for my education. My career goals require me to attain a formal education so there is no other way for me to go on to achieve my dreams,” Mackey said.

For Ally Bevers, a senior from Mount Airy, Georgia, the support provided through the Brinson Scholarship Fund is helping her pay the higher cost of tuition for students who are not from North Carolina. “This scholarship has helped me work toward earning my degrees. I am paying for college on my own, and I am an out-of-state student,” said Bevers, who is majoring in management and finance. “Each year, I take out the maximum amount of loans possible from the government. Without the Brinson Annual Scholarship, I would have to come up with the extra money on my own or take out a loan with a higher interest rate. The scholarship relieves a lot of that pressure.”