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Belcher, Scholarship Support Inspired Student To Pursue Doctorate

Portrait of Joshua Wilkey in his classroom

Joshua Wilkey

When Joshua Wilkey came home from a high school band trip to Brevard College, he told his grandmother that not only did he want to go to college – unimaginable in his family – he wanted to go to Brevard College and major in history and religion.

"She said, 'Why the hell would you want to do that? College is not for you. We're not college people. Don't get above your raising,'" Wilkey recalled, acknowledging her reaction was typical for many Appalachian families who never saw higher education as an attainable or desirable goal.

But Wilkey persevered – and excelled. He graduated summa cum laude – with highest honors – from Western Carolina University with a bachelor of science degree in history in 2014 and a master's degree in history in 2016. He's currently enrolled in the University of Alabama's doctoral program in higher education administration with a long-term goal of becoming a university chancellor.

Wilkey attributes his academic success to Western Carolina University Chancellor David O. Belcher's endowed scholarship initiatives, which left an indelible mark on a disadvantaged young man from Jackson County who overcame his family's hardships and dysfunction to reach a dream. As a graduate student, Wilkey received the Max and Sarah Williams Scholarship. As an undergraduate, he received the Curtis Wood Endowed Scholarship, which was endowed by 1972 WCU graduate Gaither M. Keener, former chief legal counsel for Lowe's Companies Inc., in response to Belcher's "Lead the Way" campaign to increase student scholarships. Wilkey said the nearly $3,000 scholarship "stunned" him and opened his eyes to the generosity of others. It also allowed him to focus on his studies and finish his degree in two-and-a-half years.

"I thought a scholarship was $200 or $300," he said. "I remember thinking about it being one of the first times in my life where somebody else was paving the way for me. It made me think about my obligation at some point in the future to pave the way for somebody else. I really didn't come from that culture where you paved the way for other people. I came from the school of hard knocks, where if I wanted something I had to work my a-- off to get it. I didn't come from a culture where the kindness and generosity of others was ever an option for personal capital to advance me."

As a first-generation high school and college graduate, Wilkey's road to higher education was long and hard. His father, a self-confessed functional illiterate, worked as a mechanic and retired after a successful career, Wilkey said. His mother, who passed away a couple of years ago, struggled with mental illness, but did attend a technical college.

With neither money nor family support to follow his dream, Wilkey went to work for a Canton radio station after high school, which led to a serendipitous niche business opportunity: brokering commercial radio stations. He bought his first station at age 23, but by age 31 he was living in eastern Kentucky, burned out and ready to sell, which he did. He returned to Jackson County, where he was raised, and thought about his options. After waiting a year, to re-establish his North Carolina residency, Wilkey enrolled at Southwestern Community College. A year later, he transferred to WCU as a nontraditional student looking for the next chapter in his life.

Joshua Wilkey at a scholarship banquet


"I always wanted to be a teacher," he said. "That is what I always wanted to do, but when you come from the socioeconomic background that I did, you don't have the family savvy – nobody in my family knew what a Pell Grant was or what scholarships looked like. Honestly, one of the downsides of secondary education that I think is still prevalent is that the guidance counselors focus on the superstars and the middle class and upper middle class students they know are going to get into good colleges, and everybody else just gets pushed off to the side."

Despite Wilkey's desire to be a history teacher, he flirted with the idea of going into the ministry, which meant a master's degree in divinity. "You can get into seminary with a bachelor's degree in practically anything, and I thought, 'well why not get a bachelor's degree in something I love.' I love literature and I love history and those two things – let's face it – students with my background don't often get a chance to study because they're focused on the vocational programs that get them graduated and making money."

But it was watching WCU history faculty member Alex Macaulay teach a sophomore history seminar that convinced him to become a history professor. "And once I expressed that desire and demonstrated some potential in that area, the history department really supported me in that endeavor," Wilkey said. "I am a successful history professor today because of the history department at Western, and part of that is just supporting me with endowed scholarships as an undergraduate and graduate student."

"I thought a scholarship was $200 or $300. I remember thinking about it being one of the first times in my life where somebody else was paving the way for me. It made me think about my obligation at some point in the future to pave the way for somebody else."

But Wilkey was watching other people, too – David Belcher and his wife, Susan—and he couldn't shake what he was witnessing. "I would usually get an invitation to the Christmas party for student leaders. It just amazed me that Chancellor Belcher and Susan both actually cared about students and remembered them. And that meant something to me, to think that the chancellor of this university remembers the students who are here, who he interacts with. He was just so charismatic, and Susan, too. I think Western was incredibly lucky to have a pair in Chancellor Belcher and Susan. I can say wholeheartedly that they have both had not just an impact on my education, but on my life and what I do for a living now."

Belcher so impressed Wilkey that he decided to pursue his doctorate in higher education administration. "Dr. Belcher is one of my heroes," Wilkey said. "I received two degrees from WCU during his tenure, and he is the reason I aspire to become a college president myself. His leadership was one of the primary reasons I chose to pursue a doctorate."

At 37, Wilkey, is married to Betsy Aspinwall, assistant director of counseling and psychology services at WCU. He said he's a different person than the teenager his grandmother admonished more than 20 years ago for having a dream of earning a history degree and working in higher education. With two degrees under his belt and a third on its way, Wilkey stays busy another way: he is a history instructor and the academic compliance and assessment officer at – wait for it – Brevard College.

To give towards the LEAD THE WAY CAMPAIGN to benefit the next generation of aspiring WCU alumni, please visit here or call 828-227-7124.

By Melanie Threlkeld McConnell

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