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Highlands couple establishes funds for study abroad, undergrad research for WCU students, faculty

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Gayle Watkins and Andrew Chmar

Students and faculty in Western Carolina University’s Brinson Honors College will have increased access to international study and undergraduate research opportunities, thanks to the support of Highlands couple Gayle Watkins and Andrew Chmar.

The husband-and-wife team has made gifts and pledges to create two new endowments at WCU – one to provide scholarship aid to Brinson Honors College students for study-abroad programs and the other to support faculty members who develop and guide those learning experiences and undergraduate research activities. Both endowments will begin providing annual support beginning in the 2023-2024 academic year.

The Chmar-Watkins Study Abroad Endowed Scholarship Fund will support Brinson Honors College students who are participating in international study opportunities while pursuing a degree at WCU. The scholarships are designated to help students meet expenses including transportation, room, board, fees and other associated costs incurred in faculty-led or other over-seas study-abroad experiences.

The Watkins-Chmar Faculty Support Fund will provide programmatic support for faculty members in the Brinson Honors College who are or will be engaged in student study-abroad experiences or undergraduate research opportunities. Awards will support faculty activities such as investigations into potential study-abroad sites, exploration of undergraduate research opportunities, and course development and lesson planning.

Watkins and Chmar said they established the two new funds at WCU because of their own passion for international travel and the many gifts it has provided them. Both served as officers in the U.S. Army for 22 years and attained the rank of colonel prior to retiring. “Our military careers as well as our other pursuits have allowed us to work and travel around the world, from North and South America to Europe, from Asia and Africa to the Arctic,” Chmar said.

During their military careers, both taught cadets at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York. “Having taught undergraduate students, we know how international experiences empower college graduates,” Watkins said. “Study abroad provides students with new perspectives, skills and knowledge regardless of their major or field of interest, enabling them to become our future leaders. Getting overseas can feel challenging at first, so we wanted to give Brinson Honors College students a boost so they could join the hundreds of thousands of U.S. students who study abroad each year.”

Their experiences teaching at the U.S. Military Academy also showed the couple the importance of supporting the faculty members who provide these valuable learning opportunities to students, they said. “Although often shorter than other study-abroad experiences, faculty-led trips require a lot of effort, from envisioning to planning to leading the trips. We wanted to give WCU faculty members a hand while they make those trips the best possible,” Watkins said.

Watkins and Chmar joined the Brinson Honors College Advisory Board in 2018 through the encouragement of Highlands residents, longtime WCU supporters and fellow golden retriever lovers Kathy and Mark Whitehead and Judy and Jack Brinson. They regularly host Brinson Honors College students, faculty and staff at events in Highlands and Cashiers. In addition, Watkins joined the WCU Foundation Board Directors in July of this year.

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Gayle Watkins and Andrew Chmar (front, center) pose with Brinson Honors College students at Cedar Creek Club in Cashiers.

Jill Granger, dean of the Brinson Honors College, characterized Watkins and Chmar as “servant leaders” who provide valuable guidance through their service on the college advisory board in addition to their financial contributions.

“With Gayle and Andy’s international experience, they have re-energized the board’s focus on supporting student study-abroad opportunities and helped us set achievable goals. One of the outcomes of those planning discussions is the endowment they established to support faculty development. This is absolutely critical if we are going to start growing the numbers of students who are studying abroad,” Granger said.

Most Brinson Honors College students who study internationally do so as part of faculty-led study-abroad trips, so supporting faculty members in the development of opportunities to study abroad will increase student access to those learning experiences, she said.

As a part of the NC Promise program, which reduces tuition costs at WCU and three other University of North Carolina System institutions to $500 per semester for residents of North Carolina and $2,500 per semester for those from other states, WCU provides “extremely affordable” faculty-led study-abroad opportunities, Granger said.

“These two new endowments demonstrate Gayle and Andy’s leadership and vision for what lies ahead. With their focus on experiential learning through study abroad and undergraduate research, they are demonstrating what the possibilities are for student and faculty support that leads to incredible impact. These are the kinds of transformational learning experiences that change lives,” she said.

For more information on creating an endowment to help students pursue their higher education goals or to provide programmatic support, contact the WCU Division of Advancement at 828-227-7124 or, or visit

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