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CU changed Green Countian's future from dark to light

Belinda "Beau" Wilkins-Smith had never allowed herself to dream of college, but an unemployment officer's directive to go to Campbellsville University, where she met mentor Dr. Ralph Tesseneer who helped change her life.

By Linda Marcum Waggener
Story courtesy Campbellsville University

CAMPBELLSVILLE, KY- When Belinda "Beau" Wilkins-Smith entered Campbellsville University her last name was Black and she recalls that her outlook was just about that dark. Discounted by a father who told her that college was a waste of time for girls who would just get married and have a bunch of kids, she held a belief that female children couldn't dream beyond that.

Her story of how she came to be a1995 graduate with a double major in psychology and sports medicine who is now a forest ranger and a volunteer at Clay Hill Memorial Forest is one of inspiration.

Divorced with two children, she found herself living with her grandmother in Green County, KY, broke and without a job. The unemployment officer who looked over her test scores, said, "You have no skills. There are just no jobs we can place you in. You need to go to school." He directed her to Campbellsville University.

She refers to moment as one of divine intervention

That moment is what Wilkins-Smith now refers to as divine intervention because since her dad had pronounced it a waste for girls, she'd never allowed herself to dream about college.

She says that she had no idea how to do college with no money, but she decided to go ahead and take the recommended test and discovered that she was qualified for a half tuition scholarship plus Pell grant money.

She recognized that as her one chance and she grabbed it.

In one of her first courses, Introduction to Psychology, taught by Dr. Ralph Tesseneer, she recalls learning that women have a whole world of options and can be revered by men rather than discounted as second class citizens by them.

Dr. Tesseneer believed in special strengths of women

"I would listen to Dr. Tesseneer speak from his heart about Ms. Laura, his wife, and about his bright and special daughter, Susan, with comments like, 'this may not be politically correct but I live with some strong women and I know that they are even stronger than men', and I would marvel at how different this attitude was from what I grew up with at home."

Those daily doses of enlightenment, tough challenges mixed with encouragement provided strength-building which, in her own words, 'became the catalyst for a complete turn around in life, enabling me to find joy, purpose, find self esteem in knowing that I had skills and gifts to give.'"The CU experience," Wilkins-Smith reflects, "would ultimately help me choose the right life partner and husband in Thomas 'Smitty' Smith." She said that without the enlightenment of professors like Dr. Tesseneer she might have mistaken the kindness and decency in Smitty as weakness and could have discounted him.

Recalling her negative attitude when she arrived at college, she said, "I would question, 'what's this course got to do with the rest of my life?' and now I know it's simply a part of equipping a young person for all of the different things they'll encounter as they grow and live. I believe education equips us for life."

Medical school was possibility, but she had other plans

"I had a number of star students when I was a teacher," says Dr. Ralph Tesseneer. "Belinda was always right up there with them. Many of the star students show their brightness after they graduate from CU and go into life. Belinda's was visible when she was still a student." Tesseneer said he remembered having even encouraged her to go to medical school, but she had other plans.

During her studies and Campbellsville, Wilkins-Smith became involved with the initial explorations in the Clay Hill Memorial Forest with Dr. Gordon Weddle, who she credits as the second strong mentor from her early CU classes. She has remained involved in the efforts at Clay Hill to be a positive influence in educating people about the needs of our environment.

It was at a spring volunteers and sponsors reception at Clay Hill that she and Dr. Tesseneer were together again for the first time since in many years. She gave him a hug and reminded him of how very important he'd been to her in his classes and how meaningful her education at CU was in turning her world from dark to light. She thanked him for giving her that spark of Christian caring and encouragement, pushing her to apply her unique gifts in life which have served her so well.

He was KY Project Learning Tree Facilitator of the year in 2006

In her current position as a Forest Ranger she was awarded the Kentucky Project Learning Tree Facilitator of the Year in 2006, and the U.S. Department of Interior Fish and Wildlife Service's Conservation Award in 2008.

Ever since her graduation, she continues to stay in touch and volunteer at Clay Hill. She says she loves her work as forest ranger in Green County as well as staying connected to CU through CHMF and its mission of helping to enable Earth's sustainability.

Dr. Tesseneer's mentoring of Belinda Wilkins-Smith didn't surprise Susan Tesseneer Walters at all. She says of her father, "What he has done in every part of his life is simply encouraging people, seeing the good in others, seeing their potential and quietly urging them to be the best they can be and then to give back." She includes herself in that population of people who are better from having had him, and also her mother, in their lives.

Visitors to the Tesseneer home will be offered a new or updated tour of Campbellsville University and then the town and the lake, all places he supports and loves to share.

Campbellsville University is a private, comprehensive institution located in South Central Kentucky. Founded in 1906, Campbellsville University is affiliated with the Kentucky Baptist Convention and has an enrollment of 2,601 students who represent 93 Kentucky counties, 27 states and 31 foreign nations. Listed in U.S.News & World Report's 2009 "America's Best Colleges," CU is ranked 22nd in "Best Baccalaureate Colleges" in the South for the second consecutive year. CU has been ranked 16 consecutive years with U.S.News & World Report. The university has also been named to America's Best Christian Colleges(R). Campbellsville University is located 82 miles southwest of Lexington, KY., and 80 miles southeast of Louisville, KY. Dr. Michael V. Carter is in his tenth year as president.

This story was posted on 2008-11-14 00:15:01
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Mentor, successful student

2008-11-14 - Winters Dining Hall, CU, Campbellsville, KY - Photo By Linda Waggener. CU photo.
Belinda "Beau" Wilkins-Smith said it gave her great joy to reconnect with her mentor Dr. Ralph Tesseneer and be able to thank him for all he had done when she was his student. They were together recently in Winters Dining Hall on the campus of Campbellsville University. In the photo are, from left, Tesseneer, Wilkins-Smith and Mrs. Laura Tesseneer.

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