For Asheville resident Crystal O’Dell, access to Western Carolina University’s graduate degree programs at Biltmore Park has made it possible for her to pursue her dream of becoming a family nurse practitioner while holding down a full-time job as a registered nurse.
For Jonathan Rich, a former newspaper reporter and editor living in Brevard, WCU’s new instructional site located between Asheville and Hendersonville is allowing him to change careers and become an educator.
And, for Henderson County resident Clay Hamlett, the proximity of WCU’s master’s degree program in business administration to both his home and workplace means less time on the highway.
O’Dell, Rich and Hamlett are among the more than 500 students taking classes this fall through Western Carolina University’s Programs at Biltmore Park, which hosted an open house in September.
Located in approximately 25,000 square feet of space at 28 Schenck Parkway in Biltmore Park Town Square, WCU’s new facility consolidates under one roof 22 academic programs previously taught at various sites across Buncombe County.
Western Carolina has offered a variety of academic programs in Asheville since 1937, most recently at the University of North Carolina at Asheville and Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College’s Enka campus.
Space and access constraints at those sites in recent years limited WCU’s ability to meet the educational needs of the people of the greater Asheville area, said Patsy Miller, director of WCU Programs at Biltmore Park. The move to Biltmore Park is designed to expand access to university-level programming to better serve the educational needs of Western North Carolinians in the Buncombe-Henderson corridor, while also improving operational efficiencies, Miller said.
Nearly 300 people, including several movers and shakers from the Buncombe-Henderson area, gathered to celebrate the opening of Western Carolina University’s Programs in Biltmore Park and tour the facilities, which provide instruction in graduate programs from the colleges of Arts and Sciences, Business, Education and Allied Professions, and Health and Human Sciences, as well as an undergraduate program in nursing.
Additional WCU programs may be added at Biltmore Park in the future, but will not duplicate programs already offered in the area by UNC Asheville or any other UNC system institution, WCU Chancellor David O. Belcher told those in attendance at the open house.
“Our goal is not to be a competitor, but a collaborator in the mission to offer higher education in this region. We can more easily and cost-effectively achieve that goal with a central location in this urban setting that is close to where people live and work – not only in proximity, but in affinity – where we’re aware of, and sympathetic to, career and lifestyle needs,” Belcher said.
“I think you’ll agree that WCU Programs at Biltmore Park offer the three features that are most important to our students and this community to get the job of higher education done, and done well: the space, the grace and the place,” he said.
Students enrolled in programs at Biltmore Park seem to agree with Belcher’s assessment of their new learning environment.
O’Dell, the registered nurse working toward a master’s degree in the family nurse practitioner program, said she would not be able to attend graduate school without the availability of WCU programs beyond those offered on the main campus in Cullowhee.
“It would have been very difficult, especially financially, to have to travel and pay the gas expenses to go an hour-plus one way to Cullowhee,” she said. “With the program being very close to me, I’ve saved a lot of money. I wouldn’t have to live on campus. I wouldn’t have to buy the gas to travel to a campus more than an hour away. That was my biggest reason for choosing Western.”
Rich, who has worked for 17 years as a journalist, including stints at the Asheville Citizen- Times and the Hendersonville Time-News, is studying at Biltmore Park toward a master’s degree in teaching with the goal of becoming a high school English instructor.
“Because I have a busy school life and a busy work life, time and convenience are huge factors for me,” said Rich, who is currently student- teaching at Brevard High School. “I live in Brevard, and this location has enabled me to pursue a change of career at nominal cost. I am able to fit work and learning into my lifestyle. I haven’t had to take any classes physically in Cullowhee; they have all been online or at a satellite location. I simply wouldn’t be able to travel to Cullowhee every day. It would be a significant commute with significant expense.”
The location in Biltmore Park, an upscale mixed-use community with a variety of retail and dining options, also has additional perks for WCU students studying there, Rich said. “I have found all of the businesses to be very welcoming to Western Carolina students,” he said. “Many of them offer discounts on food for students. For someone on a budget, that is very helpful. It’s great to be able to get that cup of coffee at a discounted price.”
Hamlett, who earned his undergraduate degree in public relations from Appalachian State University and is now working on his MBA, said WCU’s site at Biltmore Park is much more convenient for students from Henderson County and points south.
“The new location is great for me,” Hamlett said. “I work at BorgWarner Turbo Systems less than 3 miles away, so getting to Biltmore Park is a much easier commute. The drive home from school is cut from 40 minutes to 20 minutes, and after a hard day at work and class it’s nice to have a shorter drive.”
Western Carolina’s Biltmore Park site includes a high-fidelity patient simulation laboratory for nurse anesthesia students and a nursing skills lab featuring a simulated hospital and outpatient care environment to allow nursing students to learn basic and advanced skills. The new space also includes 12 classrooms, a conference room, a video conference room, four student/meeting rooms, faculty offices, break rooms, and a large collaborative room for faculty and student use.
WCU administrators had been exploring ways to meet growing demand for higher education and professional development in Asheville and Hendersonville, and in the fastgrowing residential and business corridor between the cities. That need became increasingly apparent after numerous meetings across WNC to introduce Belcher, who became WCU chancellor in July 2011, to the region.
Historically, students enrolled in WCU classes offered in the Asheville area have come from Buncombe, Haywood, Henderson, Madison, McDowell, Transylvania and Polk counties.