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WCU Stories

Project CARE inspires alumna toward service

By Chaz Lilly

Nia Blackwell was quiet, shy in high school. She knew she needed to get out her shell, make friends and connect with community when she came to Western Carolina University.  

She was worried, too, that when she set out on her own, hours from home, that not a lot of people would look like her at a predominately white institution. She feared it would be difficult to assimilate into a new culture.

nia blackwell

Nia Blackwell

“I had to start over, make a new friend group when I left home,” Blackwell said. “I knew that no matter where I went to school, that would likely be the case, but WCU had resources to make it easier.”

Blackwell found those resources through Project CARE, a program that connects incoming WCU Students with mentors and a ready-made, diverse and inclusive community.  It was a program that showed concern for those like Blackwell who worried about feeling alienated, or just needed a place to belong. 

Project CARE, which stands for stands for Culturally Aligned Retention Enhancement, is run by Intercultural Affairs, aims to improve academic performance and retention of underrepresented students at WCU. For over 30 years, the program has provided a network of safety and empowerment.

“I immediately had a built-in support system through the program. That gave me confidence and a place to be myself,” Blackwell said.

One way the program builds connections is during their annual summer retreat. The week before school starts, the program invites incoming students and mentors to work together in team building activities.

“The retreat serves as a fun transition, but also a space to be vulnerable and grow. Mentees meet their mentors, there’s a lot of food, even some singing and dancing. Having a community and a sense of belonging before the first day of class helps college seems a little less daunting,” said Evelyn Rucker, director of ICA. “We are very intentional in the way we welcome these students to Western.”

Apart from the initial retreat, there are regular meetings and outings for students, most recently a group took to the mountains for a snowy ski trip.

project care ski

Project Care members enjoy a recent ski trip.

Diandra Macias, associate director of ICA, led the group down the slopes.

“We had so much fun,” she said. “A lot of these students have never and would never go skiing. They were definitely out of their comfort zone, which made them come together and lean on each other even more.” 

Zachary Turner, a junior social work major, has seen the benefits of connecting with a mentor and spending time with other students in the program.

“During my freshman year, my mentor was there to talk about everything. They helped me be more assertive making friends and to take the first step and engage if I wanted to get to know someone,” Turner said. “I have been able to rely on my friends in Project CARE at all times. It’s just a big family. We’re all there for each other.”

Turner became a mentor and an executive board member for Project CARE, continuing the guidance shown to him, and also a member of the ICA Council, the student-led branch of the department. The council hosts events and programs throughout the academic year to foster diversity and inclusion at the university.

One of Turner’s mentees is freshman Alyssa Hines. Coming from Orlando, Florida, she is far from home, but she said Project CARE led her to network with other campus organizations. Now, in her second semester, she is involved with the Inspirational Gospel Choir, the Global Back Studies Club and the Black Student Union.

“I was raised by a Black father and a White mother,” Hines said. “Project CARE and Intercultural Affairs has encouraged me to explore more about my heritage, to think about my identity and connect with different groups of people with many different backgrounds.”

Hines said she plans on becoming a mentor after this year.

project care

Project Care members.

Blackwell’s role in project CARE also evolved over time. She changed from scared freshman to empowered mentor, and eventually, after graduating, she realized she wanted to continue the things she was doing at WCU, to help prepare and guide others toward a successful future.

“My degree is in integrated health sciences. I was expecting to be working in a clinic, something in the medical field. But, while I was job hunting, I worked as a counselor at the Boys and Girls Club in Lee County,” Blackwell said. There was a calling placed on my heart to pour into these kids. I work hard to provide a safe space for my teens for them to grow into their most authentic selves just like Project CARE did for me.”

Now, as the teen director at the Boys and Girls Club, she said kids’ faces light up when she walks into the room. For her, that is affirmation enough that she is on the right path. 

Project CARE recruitment happens in the spring and summer semesters. Those interested in being a mentor or mentee can find more information at . 

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