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Catamount crew crisscrosses Ireland for WCU travel series maiden voyage

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Catamount Adventurers display the WCU flag in front of Kylemore Abbey.

By Bill Studenc

From a chance for a proposal “do-over” on the Cliffs of Moher to a mother-daughter first visit to ancestral homelands, Western Carolina University’s inaugural Catamount Adventures trip offered an array of experiences both shared and personal in Ireland.

Two dozen Catamount Adventurers recently traversed the Emerald Island from Ennis on the nation’s west coast to the capital of Dublin in the east during an 11-day journey that culminated in cheering from special grandstand seats as WCU’s Pride of the Mountains Marching Band closed the annual St. Patrick’s Day parade.

Highlights of the March 7-18 trip included visits to iconic Irish landmarks the Cliffs of Moher, the rocky landscape of the Burren, the Aran Islands of Inishmore, the Wild Atlantic Way’s Achill Island with its Bronze Age forts, the Connemara region, the National Famine Memorial, Kylemore Abbey, the 1600s-era Castle Leslie and the Newgrange tomb dating to the Stone Age.

The group also enjoyed a sheepdog demonstration; private performances by traditional Irish musicians, artists, dancers and story-tellers; tastings of goat cheese, fudge, gelato, Irish whiskey and gin; and strolls through the municipalities of Ennis, Galway, Westport, Carrick-on-Shannon and Dublin.

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Brent Kinser, WCU professor of English, recites a work by Irish poet William Butler Yeats.

At various spots along the way, Brent Kinser, WCU English professor specializing in 19th-century British literature, provided insight on the inextricable links between Irish history, literature and music – sometimes while hoisting a pint of Guiness.

For Melinda Ward, a 1993 graduate of WCU’s environmental health program and utilities manager for the city of Eden, the excursion provided an opportunity to tick an often-postponed item off of her “bucket list” – accompanying the Pride of the Mountains to a high-profile performance. She had become a fan of the band after graduating, following its exploits on social media over the years.

“I had thought about trying to make the band’s earlier performances in the Tournament of Roses Parade and Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, but I couldn’t make it work,” she said. “But when I saw news of the trip for the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, I realized it would be the perfect opportunity for my first overseas trip and to finally get to see the band in a major parade.”

Husband Mike was eager to go along, but he had ulterior motives – he wanted to give Melinda a proper proposal, one better than when they married 28 years ago at the age of 26.

“When I first proposed, we were still young. It was not very romantic, and I often thought that if I had a chance to do it over again, I would do it differently,” he said. “We didn’t have a real honeymoon. I had been married previously and had custody of my 3-year-old son, and she just got tossed into the middle of being a parent. I always had it in my mind to find a way to do it over and do it right.”

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Mike Ward surprises alumna Melinda Ward with second proposal at the Cliffs of Moher.

So, after the trip was booked, he learned how to say “I love you” and “will you marry me” in Gaelic. On the trip’s second day against the breathtaking backdrop of the Cliffs of Moher, he dropped to one knee, spoke those specially selected words of Gaelic and presented Melinda with a traditional Claddagh ring representing love, loyalty and friendship.

“I had no idea. He floored me. I knew he was trying to learn a little bit of Gaelic for our trip, but I had no idea why,” Melinda said. “It was a 100 percent better proposal this time.”

When Anna Haggy, a 2020 graduate with degrees in environmental health and political science, received an email from WCU announcing the Ireland trip, she was determined to pounce on the chance for quality time with her mother, June Haggy, a public school teacher who is working toward her doctorate.

“My mom talks about going to Ireland all the time,” said Anna Haggy, a safety specialist at N.C. State University. “It’s become a running family joke – ‘oh, we’re going to buy a castle and open up a bed-and-breakfast there.’ I knew she always wanted to go. I wasn’t sure she was ever going to take the time for herself to go, so I figured this would be a good way to make this happen.”

June Haggy, who has long wanted to research her family’s Irish roots as O’Hagans, said being able to travel with her daughter has solidified their relationship.

“When you have an experience like this together with your kid, it makes a strong bond stronger,” she said. “I’ve come to appreciate Anna even more. It’s been amazing to me just watching her mature and seeing all of the things she is learning and taking in. I appreciate her more now as a friend and companion. That we can have that relationship and friendship too is really important.”

Anna said the feeling is mutual. “It’s been cool seeing my mom really enjoy herself and see her talk with and engage with a lot of other people,” she said. “You don’t really get to see your parent being social and enjoying times with their friends very often until you get a bit older. I have really enjoyed seeing that.”

Many of the travelers ranked a “free day” at Castle Leslie – which included activities ranging from spa treatments and high tea to falconry and archery – among their favorite experiences.

Alumnus Bob Thomas, a retired international business executive, was among those who took advantage of the opportunity for an up-close-and-personal encounter with birds of prey while his wife, alumna Suzanne, enjoyed high tea in the castle.

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Alumnus Bob Thomas participates in a falconry activity at the Castle Leslie in Ireland.

“I had never done anything like that, nor had I been so close to a bird of prey,” said Thomas, a 1970 graduate. “Our guide was excellent, as we got to meet his eagle, owls, hawks, falcons and peregrine. Over two hours, we learned about each species of bird and their unique skills and personality, plus we had a chance to work with a hawk and use our arms as his launching pad. It was one of my most unique experiences in my life, and I’m glad I had a chance to do it.”

Donna Winbon, a 1980 graduate and financial adviser from Raleigh, said she especially enjoyed a demonstration of border collies herding sheep and a visit to a goat farm and cheese-making facility. But her top experience was interacting with fellow Catamounts.

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Alumna Donna Winbon pauses during a sheepdog demonstration in Ireland.

“The most fun was the laughter and deepening of friendships, going from acquaintances to friends. Getting involved with WCU through philanthropy has been life-enhancing. Connecting again with classmates and meeting so many people with that purple common thread has been so much fun,” said Winbon, who visited Ireland as a single traveler. “These kinds of trips are perfect for singles. Having the common connection makes it easy to converse and feel totally at ease.”

Traveler Susan Belcher characterized the trip as a way to honor her promise to her late husband, former WCU Chancellor David Belcher, to continue traveling in keeping with their financial support of student travel-abroad opportunities through the Brinson Honors College.

“I hadn’t been on an overseas trip since before COVID, so when I got the opportunity to not only travel but to join fellow Catamounts in doing so, I jumped at the chance,” she said. “As a former first lady of WCU, my Catamount connections, while close, were, by necessity, a step removed. On this trip, I was just ‘Susan’ – and pretty much for the first time I was free to experience that ‘Catamount Connection’ that binds us so closely. It’s real and it’s special.” 

For several alumni, the Ireland trip has strengthened their bond with their alma mater.

“I have kind of felt disconnected from WCU over the years. I didn’t know that many people, and my friends don’t really go back for events, so I haven’t felt comfortable going to reunions. It has been great getting to know a lot of new people at the different stops along the way,” Melinda Ward said.

“I would like to become more involved with Western. For me, my parents couldn’t afford to send me to college, so I had to pay for it myself. I have given a little bit over the years, because I’ve always wanted to support other kids who were struggling with the cost of education like I did.”

At age 26, Anna Haggy was the youngest person on the trip, but after a brief period of awkwardness at the journey’s beginning, she said she felt right at home among fellow Catamounts.

“What I appreciate more than I did before is the people that are surrounding and make up Western,” she said. “I mean, I never had a conversation with the chancellor before this, so I got to see the leadership of the university in a great and different way. This just makes me appreciate it more and have time to reflect on it.”

And she plans to become more engaged with WCU. Longtime WCU supporters Frank and Becky Brown, who host new student send-offs in the Raleigh area, were on the trip and asked if she would come and talk to new students about what it’s like to go to Western at this summer’s send-off. “I would love to do that. I actually went to that when I was a freshman, so it would be a full-circle moment,” she said.

From mother June’s perspective, the Ireland journey has reinforced her daughter’s decision on where to go to college.

“I’m just so glad Anna found Western,” she said. “This trip and getting to know the people on it helped me to know that she made the right choice and was in the right place. She says it over and over again – the focus is on the students. The university wants to see their success, and that had a really positive impact on her life, so I’m very thankful for that.”

After the Pride of the Mountains’ crowd-pleasing performance at the St. Patrick’s Day parade through Dublin and individual side excursions ranging from Trinity College and St. Patrick’s Cathedral to the Guiness brewery, the adventurers came together for a final farewell dinner. The event featured the reciting of limericks and the singing of songs, including a rousing rendition of “The Birthday Song” dedicated to traveler Margaret A. Studenc, a two-time WCU alumna born on St. Paddy’s Day.

“I was expecting Ireland to be beautiful. What I wasn’t expecting was meeting so many new people from WCU who I now consider to be dear friends,” said Studenc, a retired educator.

Bob Thomas agreed. “Our final dinner was memorable and reflected how we had bonded together as a group,” he said. “Being with fellow Catamounts was one of the high points for me. Beginning the trip, we knew a handful of fellow sojourners. By the end, we were all best friends.”

The Catamount Adventurers agreed that a grand time was had by all. Perhaps the best quote of the trip was uttered by one guide after the group broke into a spontaneous version of  “The WCU Fight Song” on a tour bus: “They are a mad bunch, these ones.”

Winbon said she is looking forward to future excursions as part of the travel series. “What a great idea to start Catamount Adventures,” she said. “I personally look forward to options to travel with the group in the future. I love to travel and will have more opportunities with people I enjoy, and it adds options to my smorgasbord of adventures.”

Registration is now underway for this year’s second excursion – a cross-continental journey to the Big Sky Country of Montana, scheduled for Sept. 17-22 in conjunction with the Catamount football team’s intercollegiate game at the University of Montana.

For more information about the WCU Catamount Adventures travel series, contact Janice Feichter, advancement events manager, at or 828-227-2051, or visit the website

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