By Bill Studenc
For some students, attending Western Carolina University means a little bit more than just pursuing a college degree – an important goal, to be sure. But for several new first-year and transfer students, enrolling at WCU also means carrying on a family tradition.
During a ceremony Saturday, Sept. 23, 73 of those new students were officially welcomed into the university family by members of their own families who previously attended WCU.
The Legacy Pinning event is held annually to honor incoming legacy students and their family members during WCU’s Family Weekend. It is designed to offer alumni the opportunity to “pin” their incoming student with a special legacy token denoting their WCU heritage.
Chancellor Kelli R. Brown greeted the more than 300 people attending the ceremony, held in the Ramsey Regional Activity Center.
“Most of our students arrive on campus a bit wide-eyed and nervous, not sure exactly what they have gotten into. But the students in the room this morning have a bit of an advantage over many of their classmates. They have you – their mothers, fathers, grandparents, aunts, uncles, sisters, brothers, significant others – the loved ones who were once in their shoes, as students themselves here at WCU, perhaps a bit wide-eyed and unsure where to turn,” Brown said, addressing alumni in the crowd.
She then turned to address the new students. “Those family members succeeded. And so will you,” she said.
“I hope that you always consider Cullowhee to be home,” Brown said. “And who knows? Maybe in 20 years or so you will find yourself back here in Cullowhee, supporting your own child as they take their first tentative steps as a member of the Catamount family? As you may have noticed this morning, this legacy thing seems to be a bit contagious. Or, given that it’s Family Weekend, maybe a better word is ‘hereditary?’ Or ‘genetic?’ Either way, it’s part of our DNA.”
Keynote speaker Melanie Tolbert Blosser, a 1995 graduate with a bachelor’s degree in child development and family relations, described family connections to WCU that began with her grandmother Mary Raby Brown, a 1947 graduate of Western Carolina Teachers College.
Blosser’s grandmother worked at a Highlands country club throughout her time at WCU to pay for college. After graduating, she taught for one year at Franklin High School before joining the faculty at Sand Hills Middle School in Buncombe County, teaching there for 35 years before retiring.
“Education was extremely important to my grandmother as she paid for my college education,” Blosser said. “I would like to think that she would have written the check to any university, but I know she took great pride sending her first granddaughter and her money to WCU. I will never forget the love and sacrifices she gave me to succeed in college and as well as life.”
Blosser’s family connections to WCU include brother Alex Tolbert, a 1997 graduate and member of the WCU baseball team, who would go on to marry her roommate, 1996 graduate Daphni Tolbert. She also met her future husband, Todd, a 1994 WCU graduate, in a first aid class in Breese Gymnasium.
Her daughter Abbey is a WCU senior set to graduate in May with double major in criminal justice and psychology after visiting bigger schools including Georgia, Auburn and Alabama, while son Jake is a freshman studying integrated health sciences and planning a career in athletic training.
“I have no doubt that my children will be prepared to take on the world just as yours will be, getting their education here at WCU. Abbey and Jake, we are so proud of you. We are thankful and lucky to share this bond with you. To say our family bleeds purple and gold is an understatement,” Blosser said.
“WCU not only provided me with my ‘family’ but prepared me for my career. Through my classes, professors and internship, I learned the necessary skills to work in the early education field for over 25 years. I feel extremely lucky to have the foundation that WCU gave me to give back to the next generation, just as my grandmother did. My time as a student here was transformative, and I am proud to carry that experience with me as an alumnus,” she said.
Blosser shared words she thinks of when describing a Catamount: family, tradition, pride, community, excellence, academics, passion and motivation.
“I love that being a Catamount means you are part of an intimate family that still gets goosebumps when you ride through Catamount Gap and see those mountains that make you feel at home. And I also love that you can be out in your part of the world and, when you hear someone say ‘go Cats,’ that sense of purple and gold runs through your veins,” she said.
James Hogan, assistant vice chancellor for engagement, reminded the audience that WCU has a mission of providing accessible higher education, which includes serving a large number of first-generation students.
“But you all aren’t first-generation students. As legacy students, you’re second-generation Catamounts. Some of you are third- or maybe even fourth-generation Catamounts. Many of you followed your parents’ footsteps to this beautiful valley — and some of you followed your grandparents, or an aunt or uncle, or a brother or sister. No matter what, though, you have a special connection to Western Carolina,” Hogan said.
“For our students, it might not be evident just yet, but your family is extraordinarily proud of you. Yes, this is a place where they’ve collected so many wonderful memories — but more importantly, it’s the setting for you to make your own. Yes, this may be your family member’s alma mater — but now it’s your turn to make an impact,” he said.
Allison Hinson, Alumni Association president, introduced Blosser as the keynote speaker while members of the Alumni Association Board of Directors assisted throughout the event, greeting students and their family members.