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David Westling receives UNC System's Holshouser Award for Excellence in Public Service

WCU’s David L. Westling (center) is congratulated by UNC System President Margaret Spellings (left) and UNC Board of Governors Chair Harry L. Smith Jr. after receiving the Gov. James E. Holshouser Jr. Award for Excellence in Public Service.

David L. Westling, Western Carolina University’s Adelaide Worth Daniels Distinguished Professor of Special Education, was honored as recipient of one of the top honors presented by the University of North Carolina System – the Gov. James E. Holshouser Jr. Award for Excellence in Public Service.

Westling accepted the honor from Harry L. Smith Jr., chair of the Board of Governors, during its meeting in Chapel Hill on Friday, Nov. 9. Named for a former North Carolina governor, the award was created in 2007 to recognize and reward public service by UNC System faculty.

Westling was accompanied at the awards presentation by a contingent that included his family, WCU Interim Chancellor Alison Morrison-Shetlar and College of Education and Allied Professions colleagues Dale Carpenter, Kelly Kelley, Karena Cooper-Duffy and Marissa Ray.

Westling has been a nationally and internationally recognized leader in the field of special education for nearly 50 years, particularly as it involves individuals with severe and profound disabilities. He came to Cullowhee in 1997 to accept the first endowed distinguished professorship in WCU's history.

Over the past 21 years, Westling has received more than $7.5 million in grant funding for projects ranging from implementation of a support program to help special education teachers avoid rapid career burnout to an effort to address a shortage of educators and school support staff qualified to work with students with severe physical and developmental disabilities. His work with many WCU undergraduate and graduate students has prepared them with the skill set they need to meet the educational needs of society’s often-forgotten children, and he has been a mentor to many colleagues in WCU’s College of Education and Allied Professions and around the nation and world. “His actions, research and service have fundamentally shaped the field of special and inclusive education,” Morrison-Shetlar wrote in a nomination letter for the award.

One of the most visible examples of Westling’s work at WCU is the University Participant Program, which he co-directs with Kelly Kelley, associate professor of inclusive and special education. The program brings individuals with intellectual disabilities to campus for a two-year living and learning experience, which helps them transition from secondary school to adult life with education, employment and independent living. About 200 WCU students volunteer with the program annually to not only assist program participants but also to gain insight into the struggles faced by young people with intellectual disabilities. WCU’s UP Program is recognized as a model initiative both nationally and internationally.

“The University of North Carolina is fortunate to have you as a distinguished member of its faculty,” Smith said as he presented the award. “You’ve demonstrated sustained and superb achievement in university public service and in contributing to the quality of life of the citizens of North Carolina and beyond.”

Westling thanked Smith, the Board of Governors and UNC System President Margaret Spellings for the honor and also expressed appreciation to his family members for their support and to his colleagues in the College of Education and Allied Professions – particularly Kelley, his partner in overseeing the UP Program. “Anything that is said about the UP Program at Western Carolina University just couldn’t be said without her work,” Westling said.

He also thanked WCU's administration, Board of Trustees and all the faculty for their support. “One of the best things about the university is, if you say, ‘I think I have a good idea; what do you think of this?,’ the doors are wide open, and that’s really important,” Westling said.

“In the final analysis, it’s all about people,” he said. “I really feel that what we should do, if we’re doing anything at all, is we should help people achieve their maximum potential, because that’s what’s really important. If people are able to do that, I think the world is really a much better place, and that’s what I’ve tried to do over the years.”

More information about the University Participant Program is available online at Details about WCU’s Special Education Program are available at

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