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.