Between the two of them, daughter Alison “Ali” Howie is clearly holding up better than her mother, Paula Dennis.
“I’m an emotional wreck,” Dennis openly admits after queuing up her vehicle in front of Scotts Dorm. Her husband, Howie’s stepfather, pulls up behind her — Dennis laughs a bit when it’s gently pointed out that her daughter has supplies enough to sustain her through a doctorate degree, not just a single year of college.
Bottled water. Shampoo. Sheets and blankets. Laundry detergent. Snacks. Cleaning items. Clothing. Books. Pens and paper.
It’s move-in day for freshman at Western Carolina University, and Howie is one of 1,450 freshmen and first-year students enrolled for classes. The cars and trucks, and yes even a few U-hauls, stretch in lines as far as the eye can see.
“We’ve been planning and buying for the past three weeks. Well, really, all summer,” Dennis says.
Howie, a self-described “very independent, very organized” 18-year-old from the Mount Pleasant area, hands off a tidily labeled box to a man in shorts with a baseball cap turned around on his head. There’s a lot of help on freshman move-in day at WCU. Professors and staff have turned out in force to ensure their new charges enjoy these first moments on campus.
“You earn brownie points for the labels,” the man says pleasantly. Howie just nods in brief acknowledgement, not yet realizing that this extra pair of arms belongs to WCU’s new chancellor, David Belcher.
Howie, if she’s nervous, isn’t showing it. She’s got one thing on her mind: maintaining at least a 3.6 grade point average as a nursing major. And that’s one of the main reasons this academically minded young woman chose WCU — because when you get right down to it, there’s not many distractions to be found.
There’s no college scene — nothing close to the much-ballyhooed Athens, Ga., or iconic Chapel Hill — not even a Boone-for-Appalachian State type college town.
In fact, there’s no town at all in Cullowhee, unless you count the handful of businesses that make up the “Catwalk” near the center of campus — a few restaurants, a bank and a laundromat. Or on old Cullowhee road, a tattoo parlor, a hair salon, and a car body shop.
This isolation suits Howie just fine.
“I can drive to Asheville if I really want all that,” she says. “That’s part of the reason I like it.”
Numbers alone no longer count
The University of North Carolina system is changing how universities are allotted money. It’s no longer just about sheer enrollment numbers — more students equal more dollars, so round ‘em up, cowboy. Instead, in the name of accountability, the state is increasingly eyeing retention and graduation rates.
The graduation rate is the percentage of people actually graduating from college. The retention rate, on the other hand, is something that reflects the student body’s overall interest in what’s being offered by the college — the number of students who start at that school who go on to the next year, or years, at the same college.
The student retention rate at Western Carolina University stands at 74 percent, with Belcher recently noting the school needs to pay particular attention to the freshmen-to-sophomore retention rate.
The graduation rate at WCU is low, at an estimated 28 percent in 2010 for fourth-year students, at 46.8 percent for fifth-year students, and 51.6 percent for sixth-year students.
Former Chancellor John Bardo, who retired this summer, often blamed retention and graduation problems, in part at least, on the lack of a college town here at Cullowhee. There’s simply nothing to keep students on campus or coming back each year, according to this theory. In the absence of a college town, Bardo suggested the university build one itself. He forged a vision in his final year for a “town center” built on campus and then leased to restaurants, shops and the like. His plan included a strategy for legalizing alcohol sales for the new “town center,” another aspect of student life now lacking.
As Bardo maintained, the lack of a hip college scene might well feed into university’s graduation shortcomings. But it’s equally clear from incoming freshman that WCU also attracts many students — such as Howie — because of the rural, intimate, anti-urban feel of the campus.
The town center plans have gone on hiatus with the arrival of a new chancellor. And, given the possibility of Jackson County voters next May legalizing countywide alcohol sales — which would suddenly make Cullowhee an attractive market for new restaurants and bars — the very need for a university-driven “town center” might prove unnecessary.
“I like that it isn’t too big,” says Hannah Wallis-Johnson, an incoming freshman from Asheville who is following her mother, Sharon Wallis, to WCU as a student.
Sharon Wallis commutes to WCU in pursuit of a pre-nursing degree; she persuaded her daughter to give this Jackson County university a hard look.
Wallis-Johnson did just that, and to her surprise (who really wants one’s mother to be proven right, after all), found she loved it: few distractions to disrupt academics, and just an hour’s drive from all the fun in her hometown. That means she can actually drive home for dinner with family, or to entertainment with friends in Asheville, whenever she wants.
“Here, you have to make an actual decision to go out,” Wallis-Johnson says, citing what some might view as void as, instead, a positive.
Across the hall, Allison Cathey of Haywood County chose WCU for similar reasons. Familiarity with the mountains, in her case, too, didn’t breed contempt — she loves them, and says she never plans to leave them.
Cathey graduated from Haywood Community College, and is excited about this nearby transfer to WCU. She shakes her head when talking about WCU skeptics, those who maintain the school should offer its students a full plate of fun to go with an academic diet.
“The people who say there’s nothing to do in Cullowhee — well, that’s silly,” Cathey says. “I don’t think a town center is really necessary.”
Mother Doris Cathey adds that while she wouldn’t have attempted to influence her daughter’s college choice, WCU is, in fact, the only university her daughter applied to attend.
“This is where she wanted to go,” she says.
“This is where I want to be,” Allison Cathey emphasizes.
On the next floor up in Scotts Dorm, Bryce Hedrick looks and acts nervous. He openly admits to a full-blown case of the jitters — Hedrick, from Thomasville, worries about doing well in his classes.
His mother, Shannon Hedrick, says this is the first time her son has really been away from home.
“This is a big deal,” she says, adding that she’s happy with her son’s decision to attend WCU.
“I like the fact that they seem so focused on the education of the kids,” Shannon Hedrick says.
Her son, like the other freshmen, is enthusiastic about WCU. Many of his friends went to East Carolina University, but Bryce Hedrick says he welcomes the relative isolation of his new home.
“I just really felt like I could focus better here,” he says in explanation.