Brenna Farmer graduated from the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, led the student board of her university's honors college and researched human leukemia cells for her honors thesis.
Yet when she walked into her medical school interview at UNC, her interviewer questioned whether her education at Western Carolina University prepared her as well as classes at Chapel Hill or at Duke.
"It was really frustrating for me," said Farmer, now a first-year medical student at East Carolina University. "I told them, `I work in a research lab, and we just got a $90,000 grant from the (National Institutes of Health), and we don't even have a hospital.'
"I don't know if I made my point."
If WCU Chancellor John Bardo has his way, fewer students will have stories like this in the future. The school's reputation was in the dumps just five years ago, but WCU is attempting to transform itself from a lightweight into a highly respected university.
WCU is one of the UNC system's "focused growth institutions," which means the campus has room to expand and will be expected to take a relatively large portion of the system's enrollment increase over the next decade.
The university began to revamp its image in an effort to increase growth in 1996, several years ahead of the system. Bardo said administrators realized the school's academic reputation and location in Cullowhee at the western tip of the state limited its appeal.
"Quite honestly, a small university in a rural area isn't competitive in the long run," Bardo told the UNC Board of Governors Educational Planning, Policies and Programs Committee last week. "If we could have grown, we would have."
To address the school's academic reputation, the administration asked professors to raise their standards in the classroom and to expect students to do the work.
Hundreds of students failed out.
Bardo now uses his tough love approach with prospective students. He warns them not to come to Cullowhee if they want to skip class or go to the mall (a full 45 minutes away).
"If you're not going to do the work, go somewhere else, because we'll fail you," he says. But if students are looking for a tight-knit community where professors know their names, WCU is the place for them.
WCU also is trying to capitalize on its distance from civilization by advertising its proximity to outdoor sports and academic programs that serve the region or make use of western North Carolina's unique environment.
But lest students think the university is completely mired in nature, WCU sells itself as being on the leading edge of information technology. From computer animation to wired dorms, prospective students know WCU's courses and facilities are state-of-the-art.
The strategy is working; high school seniors are beginning to view WCU in a more positive light. Between 1996 and 2000, the entering class's average SAT increased from 965 to 1005 and high school grade point average increased from 2.8 to 3.17. The number of applicants increased by 600.
Within the honors college, this year's freshman class has an average SAT of 1222 and an average weighted high school GPA of 4.08.
What's more, the university has spruced up its recruiting process. Designers created the school's viewbook after flipping through stacks of teen magazines. The school places snazzy yet appealing ads on urban and rock stations to get its name out in the Piedmont.
Admissions teams traverse the state on a concert-like "tour," complete with music, skits and T-shirts.
And WCU assigns current students and professors to keep in touch with applicants based on their interests in and outside the classroom. Bardo asks professors to end each call with, "I'm looking forward to teaching you."
It's all in the name of WCU's game.
"Why would a student drive by every university in North Carolina and come to us?" Bardo asked. "We need to give them something special."
Columnist Anne Fawcett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.