Efrain Arias of Lexington spent the first half of 2023 studying finance in Madrid, Spain, as part of Western Carolina University’s Undergraduate Study Abroad Program. He described it as a “once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
“I have always wanted to adapt more into my Spanish culture by studying in a Spanish country,” Arias said during a telephone interview from Spain. “It was very beneficial for me to speak with locals and study finance with other foreign students.”
Elizabeth Lohbauer, who is now starting her junior year at WCU, participated in a record-breaking 2022-23 season as one of the Catamounts’ top golfers helping to revitalize the program. She described her student life at WCU as fulfilling and a great time to build bonds with faculty, staff and students that will last a lifetime.
“It’s been a wonderful experience as a student to be surrounded by so many people who live around the world,” Lohbauer said. “I see new faces every day on campus. I think the community is good at Western and I have learned there is a lot of support from faculty and staff, which I love. I just feel very welcomed.”
Both Catamounts and countless more like them will be the beneficiaries of WCU’s new $75 million “Fill the Western Sky” Comprehensive Campaign, which includes philanthropic priorities to update athletic facilities and allow more students to experience academic activities beyond the classroom. The five-year campaign is about the “promises” that propel WCU’s progress, including WCU’s mission and vision for the Western North Carolina region and beyond.
“While the institution’s previous ‘Lead the Way’ fundraising campaign rightly focused on student scholarships, we must turn our attention to improving the complete student experience through experiential learning opportunities, regional engagement and involvement in the arts and athletics,” said WCU Chancellor Kelli Brown.
Brown also said the campaign is focusing, for the first time in WCU’s philanthropic history, on supporting athletics. Jamie Raynor, vice chancellor for Advancement, said donors are excited about the campaign, which is presently in the leadership phase securing major gifts.
“We harness our academic and athletic momentum to go further, reflect deeper and work harder for the betterment of our institution and our community,” Raynor said. “The time is now to rise to the occasion and ‘Fill the Western Sky’ with financial resources that will propel our academic student experiences and support student life at WCU, including much needed updates to current and new athletic facilities.”
Alex Gary, WCU director of athletics, said the campaign is more than just about raising money. “It’s about providing a first-class experience for our current and former student-athletes while instilling pride in our alumni base who can be proud of what we have here at Western,” he said.
Building a championship culture through competitive success
Gary said updating WCU’s athletic facilities are part of his overall goal of improving a “championship culture.”
“When I started this job in 2020, I wanted to enhance our competitive success,” he said. “I was, and continue to be, excited about Chancellor Brown’s vision. We are not only playing sports at WCU but playing to win. At the same time, we are providing our student-athletes with the tools necessary to win after college into their careers. So, our goal is to position them to win through lifelong success in whatever they choose.”
Through the generosity of campaign donors, WCU will be able to address numerous athletic facility enhancements, including updating or building a new academic and student-athlete development center, an expanded strength and conditioning center, a sports medicine suite, a new press box and new premium seating in E.J. Whitmire Stadium, reconstructing the east side of Whitmire Stadium, a field sports building to replace Camp Gymnasium, new football locker room and meeting rooms, among other projects. Gary said athletics have steadily invested in WCU teams by providing additional personnel support, but even that has its limitations.
“It’s hard to be competitive when you don’t have the same resources,” he said. “We have started some facility improvements with the recently completed basketball locker room and film room projects, but this campaign will help us to make some desperately needed upgrades that support all 350+ student-athletes and rival any athletic facilities in the Southern Conference.” Lohbauer agrees.
“I think that having a larger weight room, because of donors who give to this campaign, will be an amazing asset for us,” she said. “It would be great to not really have to worry about when I can come in to work out because of the new space which allows for a more flexible schedule.” Lohbauer said the old Camp Building is in definite need of replacement. The golf team’s currently use the building sometimes as a practice area in case of inclement weather outside.
“It’s hard to fit both men’s and women’s golf teams in this small, old building that can’t really hold a lot of people,” Lohbauer said. “We also share the building with the two track teams. Having a new, larger facility will benefit all of us because it will allow teams to practice in a better facility and allow a more flexible schedule.” Updated athletic facilities will give WCU some much-needed curb appeal.
“Increasing private support for our student-athletes will be a major part of this campaign as we seek the funding necessary for critical and long-overdue upgrades to our athletics infrastructure,” Brown said. “Athletics has long been considered the ‘front porch’ of an institution, and frankly, our front porch is in desperate need of significant renovations.”
Deepen learning by supporting academic excellence
On campus, undergraduates work alongside faculty, conducting real-world research to jump-start their professional careers. In doing so, they develop critical thinking and technical skills while building relationships with faculty. Through the generosity of campaign donors, WCU will be able to enhance these experiences so that students can make an impact long after they graduate.
“Whether our students are participating in days of service or excelling in paid internships that launch careers, students at WCU are engaged and learning, both in and out of the classroom,” Raynor said. “Donors to this campaign will help to make these initiatives and their impact on students more accessible. Their support gives our student affairs and academic affairs teams the momentum they need to bring real-world cultural experiences and onsite job training to our students. With these skills, Catamounts enter the world not only as prepared career- seekers, but as fully developed leaders.”
WCU students who study abroad immerse themselves in new cultural and societal experiences. From Australia’s Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology to Germany’s Ludwigsburg University of Education, students study abroad in more than 60 different countries. Arias, a double major in business administration and law/finance, knows all too well how this will benefit students after spending five months in Madrid.
“Studying abroad definitely met my expectations of learning new social norms from a different culture,” Arias said. “It also felt good adapting to different festivities they had going on, especially along the Barcelona strip. I felt as though I was able to immerse myself in that country and learn more about its history and its celebrations.”
Arias was able to participate in the program after getting a $4,000 scholarship. He said more scholarships such as this will afford opportunities to more students who decide to t ake the same path. He will now take that experience into his senior year starting this fall and into his life beyond WCU when he graduates.
Campaign donations will go beyond just helping students
Brown said that the impact of donors is critical to this campaign's success and how WCU continues to be a leader as a comprehensive regional university. Over the decades, the university has expanded its reach, attracting students from across the nation and around the world, while never losing sight of the university’s role in meeting the needs of Western North Carolina.
“It is now time to achieve the next milestone in propelling our progress,” Brown said. “We must continue to leverage the expertise of our faculty and staff, our most abundant resource, in service to the people of this region and the state to ensure economic vitality, with a particular emphasis on filling critical industry gaps in health care, education, engineering, psychology, criminal justice and tourism. And we must provide robust and meaningful opportunities for our students by enhancing their total experience during their years with us.”
Together, we can Fill the Western Sky
The campaign planning began at the start of Chancellor Brown’s tenure; all gifts to the WCU Foundation since July 1, 2019 are included towards the goal. Now that the campaign is nearing completion of the leadership phase, both Advancement and athletic fundraisers will be reaching out to all groups who are connected to the university. Alumni, students, faculty, staff, donors, private businesses, foundations and new friends will be able to connect through traditional meetings and a new “Fill the Western Sky” interactive website where they can help with the campaign. All donations are welcome, so WCU can not only meet, but surpass the $75 million campaign goal with the hope of concluding the campaign in 2026.