Kathy and Mark Whitehead of Highlands truly support the Honors College of Western Carolina University. And that support comes with dinner.
The Honors College Advisory Board, of which the Whiteheads are longtime members, has a popular tradition of hosting social occasions with students featuring casual conversation and chicken pot pie as the main course. Jill Granger, dean of the Honors College, and seven honors students traveled “up the mountain” for the most recent evening with the Whiteheads and other board members Monday, Oct. 29.
The advisory board serves as an external council for the dean and maintains several program funds and endowments that provide financial assistance to help students with travel for study abroad, scholarships for honors students with financial need, support for the Summer Undergraduate Research Program and an emergency fund to assist Honors College students in need. The board also provides practical advice to the students, drawing upon professional experience in medical, legal, arts, business and academic careers.
“While none of us went to Western Carolina University, it is our school,” Mark Whitehead, advisory board chair, said to the visiting students. “Western serves this region, and this area depends on Western, which is why we’re a part of (WCU), through our support of you and the Honors College.”
This is the 21st year of WCU’s Honors College, which was established in 1997 as the first residential honors college in the University of North Carolina System. Today, there are 1,261 students enrolled in the academic community. The advisory board was started in 2007.
“We are so glad to welcome you and spend this time with you,” said Kathy Whitehead, the evening’s hostess. “Everyone grab a plate and we’ll get started. And at dessert, you will switch tables so you’ve spent time with all of us and we can get to know you. We are so glad you are here.”
Honors College students who have attended the dinners said the experience is convivial, eye-opening and enjoyable.
“It was great. I got to meet the people who gave me a scholarship to be here,” said Ally Bevers, of Mount Airy, Georgia. “I could say ‘I wouldn’t be here without you’ to them. That was a really cool experience, and I got to see how much they care about this university and want students to be here.”
While standing in front of a cozy fire in the living room before dinner, advisory board member Bill McMillan asked three students standing with him about their backgrounds and interests. The casual conversation turned to future career paths, books recently read and fun places to visit.
“Throughout my career in banking, I found that maintaining professional contacts and establishing a network served me well,” McMillan said. “In my day, it was stored on a Rolodex or index cards, but the importance was in the connections you made.”
The generational differences were less about Rolodex versus LinkedIn and more about life experiences, several students said.
“I talked to them about my plans to study abroad, how I enjoy hiking in the area and things like that,” said Matt Morgan, an Honors College student from Kernersville. “They talked to me about the places they had been, their favorite hikes and where to find waterfalls.”
Other aspects of the age gap were a part of some conversations, said Megan Williamson of Clayton. “They wanted to know what we thought about current events, things that we enjoyed, and told us some about what they were doing at our age,” she said. “They wanted to hear our perspectives. They said they liked hearing from young adults like us, that there is promise for the future.”
Isabella McMahan of Forest City said she was impressed by how friendly the board members are and how quickly everyone becomes acquainted. In particular, she said she appreciated the willingness of one advisory board member to share a professional contact for her future career. “My major is communication sciences and disorders,” McMahan said, “and I was given this networking opportunity with a speech pathologist in Georgia. The tremendous hospitality that we got, being welcomed and remembered, really stuck with me.”
The honors students are invited into the homes of advisory board members where they are treated to conversations that are wide-ranging, where they are taken seriously as student scholars and where they witness how the board members really do care about what they are doing and about their dreams for the future, said Granger. The dinners demonstrate one way that WCU’s Honors College has a small-college feel within the larger university context, she said.
“The students really appreciate the comfort of the home-cooked meal as well as the genuine hospitality of the small group setting. This is such a great experience for our students. I wish there were more opportunities like this. The generosity of spirit, true love of learning, and of course, the encouragement to set one’s sights high ― those are all gifts that the (board members) bring to the table and which benefit the students so much,” Granger said.
“It’s the kind of academic attention that teaches a young person what it means to be an engaged, lifelong learner. This kind of enrichment requires that you have a truly engaged board that values high-quality conversation with students, relationship building ― those kinds interpersonal skills that are easy to miss in a fast-paced, highly scheduled life,” she said. “We are significantly blessed that the Honors College has this tremendous resource in advisors, like the Whiteheads, who make time for these young people.”
The Whiteheads said they and other advisory board members will continue the pot pie dinners as a part of their commitment to WCU’s Honors College.