By Bill Studenc
A dozen Western Carolina University scholarship recipients recently found themselves in the spotlight in the Bardo Fine and Performing Arts Center as they presented examples of their scholarly and creative work to the donors who help make those endeavors possible through their philanthropy.
Students and benefactors gathered Thursday, Oct. 26, for WCU’s inaugural Scholars Showcase, a new twist on the university’s annual Scholarship Luncheon and Celebration of Philanthropy. While the luncheon format provided a chance for donors to meet recipients of scholarships they have funded, the new Scholars Showcase is designed to allow donors to interact with a larger number of students.
Student showcase presentations ranged from a vocal and piano performance of “Wind Beneath My Wings” by Marna Leigh Dodson to a display of research on the use of mouthguards equipped with instrumentation collecting head impact data during football games and practices, a study by football player Clayton Bardall from Cumming, Georgia, and WCU engineering professor Martin Tanaka in collaboration with researchers at Penn State.
During the event, WCU Chancellor Kelli R. Brown spoke from the perspectives of both a scholarship recipient and a donor.
“It may be hard to believe, but I was once in your shoes and was in need of scholarship assistance during my own pursuit of higher education. As a young girl, I never really imagined myself going to college, and I’m sure my younger self would be surprised at the fact that I’m now leading a university,” said Brown, whose higher educational trek began with earning an associate degree in dental hygiene and who created a scholarship fund in memory of her mother in 2020.
“Looking back on my journey to get where I am today – from community college to undergraduate and graduate degrees to finally earning my doctorate – I remember the impact that a benefactor had on my life. It’s hard to believe that this wouldn’t have been possible without the help of that one scholarship, that one special donor. It’s why I’m proud we get to honor our incredible donors today and why I’m proud to have established my own scholarship at WCU and give back to a student in a similar situation as I once was.”
Faculty member Billy Ogletree, who will retire as WCU’s Catherine Brewer Smith Distinguished Professor of Communication Sciences and Disorders at the end of the academic year, shared why he and spouse Julie, a speech-language pathologist, helped establish a scholarship fund earlier this year to help future students in his program.
“We were both blessed to have solid financial support as we pursued graduate studies but know such support is often a rarity. Offering a scholarship that eases financial burdens for students makes us smile, and paying forward on the careers of young speech-language pathologists will help continue a profession we have cherished,” Ogletree said.
“The WCU alma mater says, ‘Hail to the dearest spot of all, hail to WCU.’ Julie and I love Western and truly view this place as special. WCU has indeed been a dear spot for us and a wonderful place for my career. I have had the incredible opportunity to work each day with talented colleagues, students, individuals with disabilities and their families. Julie and I have received so much more than we have given. Giving back through a scholarship just seemed like the right thing to do on so many levels.”
Three student speakers described the impact of scholarship support on their respective experiences at WCU, including Dodson, who had earlier performed “Wind Beneath My Wings.”
“This assistance has greatly eased the load of finances to earn my degree. Receiving these scholarships also provides me with encouragement, as I know I have supporters all around me who want me to succeed beyond my imagination,” said Dodson, a senior music education major and recipient of the Inez Wooten Gully Scholarship and the Jonathan Graham Pruett Scholarship.
For Kaitlyn Wingnean, a junior majoring in chemistry through WCU’s pre-professional programs, scholarship support is a springboard to her goal of attending dental school after graduation.
“Receiving the Brydon Greene Golf Scholarship has truly transformed my life. It is the reason I am here in the United States pursuing my childhood goal of playing Division 1 golf, all while pursuing my education. The growth I’ve experienced as a person during my time at WCU has been remarkable,” said Wingnean, a member of the women’s golf team who hails from Canada.
“I sincerely hope my journey can inspire others and serve as a testament to the transformative power of education and sports. Western Carolina has not only changed my life for the better but also opened doors and opportunities of a lifetime. It has been a journey filled with learning, growth and unforgettable moments.”
Emmy Mae Speakman, a junior studying musical theatre and literature, has received several academic scholarships including the Brinson Honors College Scholar Award, Ad Vitam Paramus Award, Distinguished Scholarship Award and Crum English Scholarship.
“I’ve had so many opportunities being here to enrich my life, and I have to thank the gracious donors and faculty for making those opportunities possible,” said Speakman, who participated in a spring break trip to Argentina earlier this year through a project funded by the 1889 Impact Grants Program and donations to the Fund for WCU.
“It is important to note that the trips I have gone on have been financially supported by WCU grants. And I suppose the help from my parents, who are here today, doesn’t hurt either. I could not have the opportunity to grow without these various forms of financial support, and I am so thankful to speak at this event today to show that gratitude.”
Longtime university supporter Mike Crawford, a WCU alumnus who is chief performance officer for the FORVIS accounting firm, served as master of ceremony for the Scholars Showcase, which was attended by more than 300 donors, faculty, students and staff.
“Whether you help fund student scholarships, enable study-abroad and other experiential learning opportunities, empower undergraduate and graduate research, help student-athletes or provide programmatic support needed for equipment upgrades and professional development for faculty, your contributions are critical to the work of this university,” Crawford, a member of the WCU Foundation Board of Directors, told donors.
“You are helping the stories of these students and faculty members – and thousands more – collectively ‘Fill the Western Sky’ with the promise of a bright future for this university through the awesome power of higher education and the enduring tradition of service to the Western North Carolina region.”
Crawford was referring to WCU’s “Fill the Western Sky” comprehensive fundraising campaign, an effort to raise $75 million for the university’s academic, student engagement and athletics programs. For more information or to make a contribution to the campaign, visit WesternSky.wcu.edu, call 828-227-7124 or email email@example.com.