Connecting with Catamounts

Anita Puerto, Western Carolina University / The Center / March 11, 2024

Western Carolina University NM Blog paper bag lighting

Western Carolina University (WCU) is home of the Catamount, and as a result we often get the question: What is a catamount? The beautiful thing is that a catamount is not one specific type of animal species – it describes a variety of mountain cats like the mountain lions, cougars, and bobcats. Maybe that choice of mascot was even made on purpose, to celebrate the differences in each individual person while also leaning on our similarities to build community and connection! Our first-generation students are the perfect example of sharing a single commonality while experiencing everything differently based on their backgrounds, their goals, their perspectives, and more.

Western Carolina University first-gen student frame
The Mentoring and Persistence to Success (MAPS) program serves underrepresented student populations, which includes first-generation college students at WCU. We spoke with a handful of first-year, first-generation students to prepare for this blog, and what we found was no surprise – each student was experiencing college differently. One student, Meredith, said she’s proud of herself for maintaining the self-discipline that she carried with her from high school. A different student, Derek, mentioned wishing they had attended more class or started assignments earlier. A third student, Carly, says her brother had been to college first and was giving her tons of advice, suggestions, and support. Then Mark said he was all but on his own, with his family not understanding why he was pursuing a college degree instead of getting a job.

Most students agreed that tuition and paying the bill is a huge point of confusion and the thing they dread more than anything else. But even on this shared topic, students approached the issue differently. Some students asked for support from resources on campus or at home, and others powered through independently. Each of these Catamounts are experiencing college from a different perspective, and each of these Catamounts need different types of support.


Western Carolina University first-gen student gathering
So, the question for student support staff is: How do we connect to each first-generation student, their different experiences, and their varying perspectives? At WCU, it is the responsibility of MAPS to offer support to every first-generation student, and to create an encouraging and safe space that fits the needs of every individual student. How can we manage this with such variety among the 34% of our first-generation college students (out of 10,000 undergraduate students) and all of them are having unique experiences?

No spoilers here: I don’t have all the answers. I don’t have a formula that each student can be plugged into that tells us how to perfectly connect with them and support them. We do what we can – we assure our students that we see and care about them. We celebrate their success, empathize with their challenges, and assure them that they belong and are valued. The most important thing is simply that it is our responsibility to try, to vary our approach, and to re-evaluate our successes along with our swings-and-misses.


Western Carolina University
The example that comes to mind revolves around the events MAPS hosted for the National First-Generation College Celebration at WCU. We spent the summer and start of the fall term figuring out what our first-generation Catamounts wanted to learn about, and we used that as a guide for programming during the week. We hosted programs about studying abroad, scholarship writing tips, graduate school, and more; however, the most well-attended events were the social events: crafts, breakfast for dinner, and tea time. This demonstrated to us that students see the value in connection but perhaps cannot articulate that need when asked what they want to learn about. Maybe we asked the question too narrowly, but either way it is our job to learn from this and improve our conversations moving forward.

Our first-generation Catamounts are flourishing daily, gathering valuable experiences and enriching their understanding of the world and their space in it. We have a chance to join them on this exciting journey, and we will continue striving to keep up!

(Disclaimer: any student names used in this piece were changed to protect the student’s anonymity.)

For more information on Western Carolina University's approach, please visit their website here.