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Students, donors gather to celebrate the impact of philanthropy

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Several students who are among the recipients of the more than 1,500 donor-supported scholarships awarded this year at Western Carolina University took a short break from their academic pursuits to thank their benefactors in person at an annual celebration of philanthropy.

More than 250 students, donors, and university faculty and staff members came together to connect while sharing a meal, some laughs and a few tears at WCU’s “Honoring Philanthropy” scholarship luncheon Thursday, Oct. 27, in the Ramsey Regional Activity Center.

Chancellor Kelli R. Brown reminded the crowd that scholarship support can make a major difference in students’ academic careers and play a role in transforming the lives of recipients, as well as their families and communities.

“Scholarships provide people who typically wouldn’t be able to afford a college education an opportunity to earn a degree, which is the ticket to a better life,” Brown said. “Because of this impact, it’s incredibly important that we think about scholarship opportunities, as these students are the faces of our future,” she said.

Keynote speaker Carol Burton, vice provost for academic achievement and a two-time WCU alumna, described recent encounters with a pair of WCU graduates at two separate sessions during a regional gathering of more than 300 representatives of nonprofit organizations. At the first, Burton found herself sitting with another attendee sporting WCU’s primary color of purple and discovered they shared an alma mater.

“Before long, we had shared our life stories, and she had impressed upon me that her life trajectory changed in the most positive way when she enrolled at WCU almost 30 years ago and completed her degree in political science,” Burton said. ”Unsolicited, she discussed how having access to a world-class education, in her back yard, was truly transformative and afforded her the education and the confidence to fulfill her dream of pursuing a career that would help others to thrive and succeed.”

In another session at that same conference, Burton noticed someone who reminded her of a former WCU student who, like Burton, was a “reticent public speaker.” As it turned out, it actually was that once-shy student, who is now executive director of a nonprofit organization helping meet housing needs across three counties in Western North Carolina.

“I cannot express to you fully how proud and in awe of this young woman I am. She excelled at Western Carolina University and found her path to success. As a scholarship recipient and as a graduate, she is contributing to her community and our region every single day,” said Burton.

“Those of you in our midst today who provide support for our students, whether by endowing a scholarship, hosting our students at your place of work, donating funds to support their co-curricular experiences –  such as alternative break, undergraduate research, internships, service learning and study abroad trips to help them become the best that they can be –  or supporting our student artists and athletes, honors students and others, you are invaluable to helping our students achieve,” she said.

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Two student speakers shared their personal stories about how receiving scholarship support made a difference in their educational pursuits.

“I was awarded the Brinson Honors College Distinguished Scholarship, which helped lessen the financial burden for myself and my family, along with the knowledge that it was renewable each year,” said Mekeila Santiago, a criminal justice major from Jacksonville, North Carolina.

“I am very grateful and appreciative of our donors and for the scholarship I have received. It is with the support and encouragement of our donors and the Brinson Honors College that we, as students, are able to thrive in our academics, so truly I thank each and every one of you,” Santiago said.

Levi Sweat, a mathematics and computer science major from Clayton, North Carolina, took two classes as an incoming Brinson Honors College Scholar where he helped raise funds for a local elementary school and editing a magazine about advocacy in WNC.

“Through those classes, I had the unique opportunity to serve my community while being academically challenged. Simply put, I don’t know where else I could have experienced my education that way. I’m grateful for donors like you that have given me that unique opportunity,” Sweat said. “Thank you to all of the donors, whose generous funding has given me a uniquely experiential education at a price that I can afford.”

Beth Lofquist, a three-time WCU alumna and chair of the WCU Foundation Board of Directors who served as emcee for the event, summed up the sentiment of the day.

“As I look out across the arena this afternoon, I am incredibly moved to see such an outpouring of support and love for Western Carolina University students and the appreciation that those students have for those who have helped make it possible for them to pursue their education and their dreams,” said Lofquist, a retired educator who taught in Haywood and Jackson county public schools before beginning a career as a WCU faculty member and administrator. “We have much to celebrate.”

For more information on creating a scholarship fund to help students pursue their higher education goals, contact the WCU Division of Advancement at 828-227-7124 or, or visit

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