VOL. 129 | NO. 216 | Wednesday, November 5, 2014
By Don Wade
By background, Maria Lensing perhaps doesn’t fit the expected parameters of someone quick to defend Memphis and eager to take on the challenge of revitalizing a local university’s alumni association.
She moved here from Lima, Peru, at age 14, when her family brought her little brother to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital for treatment of his leukemia. Now, at age 35, she is a vice president with AT&T and has a five-state territory that would allow her to live in Nashville or Atlanta or Miami, if that were her desire.
Maria Lensing is the inaugural chair of CBUnited, the rebranded alumni association at Christian Brothers University that is working to reconnect with the university’s graduates.
(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)
But it isn’t her desire, and the way she speaks on behalf of Memphis suggests that she will be a dynamic force in her role as the inaugural chair of Christian Brothers University’s newly renamed/rebranded alumni association, CBUnited.
For example, she doesn’t much care for the glitz of Miami – not as a mother of two young sons hoping to instill values consistent with CBU’s Lasallian tradition of a holistic education. And Nashville? Bring that up at your own risk.
“Tell me, what’s the big difference between Nashville and Memphis?” she said. “You’re more expensive and you have a couple of country stars.”
Founded in Memphis in 1871 – making it the oldest university founded in the city – CBU has an enrollment of 1,600 students, and its 2014-15 freshmen class of 371 is the largest in its history.
A chief part of Lensing’s task is connect with “lost alumni” who might live blocks from the 75-acre wooded Midtown campus or on the other side of the world. Or in Miami, where Lensing recently had a business meeting with a man who turned out to be a CBU grad and one of those “lost alumni.”
“Not anymore,” she said with a smile.
Lensing saw the value in connections early in life. Her father, Lucio Blanco, now 88, was a general in the Peruvian Army and sought the best medical care for his son after the then-7-year-old boy was diagnosed with leukemia. When after about a year of treatments doctors told him that his son was going to die, he refused to accept it.
Years earlier, while studying in officer’s school in the United States, Blanco had become friends with U.S. Army Gen. Wesley Clark. When Blanco told Clark of his need for the best cancer treatment in the world, Clark directed him to St. Jude.
Lensing’s youngest brother, Juan-Diego Blanco, is now 29 years old. She says the St. Jude doctors cured his leukemia. But when he arrived here, the family learned that the radiation treatments in Peru had “burned his brain. It left him wheelchair-bound,” Lensing said. “But he’s alive. He’s a miracle.”
She admits her own adjustment to the United States and Memphis was not seamless. In Peru, she says, children begin learning a second language at age 3, so she could speak, write and read English when she got here. But culturally, her school back home and Immaculate Conception Cathedral in Memphis were two strikingly different places.
“Our culture is very traditional, 95 percent Catholic,” she said of Peru, adding that girls went to school without makeup or nail polish, their hair pushed up in bun. “Nobody breaks the rules or they will smack your hands.”
She liked Memphis’ “Southern charm,” but even so, the atmosphere was colder and more distant than the Latin American culture in which she was raised.
“I had to learn to respect the bubble of personal space in America,” she said.
She was drawn to CBU, in part, because of the “Spanish architecture, all the red brick and arches.” She also liked a message she saw early on at CBU: “Enter to learn, leave to serve.”
She’s keeping that top of mind as she reaches out to alumni. About 10 percent of the CBU Annual Fund comes from alumni donations; the industry norm is more like 15-16 percent.
“We want 5 percent growth over the next five years,” Lensing said.
“Maria’s perfect for this because she’s a poster child for who we are,” said Wendy Sumner-Winter, CBU’s senior director of external affairs and donor relations.
CBU has students from 26 countries. Engineering, which was Lensing’s major, is a huge draw.
The school competes in sports at the Division 2 level, so there isn’t a big football program or basketball program to provide a universal rallying point for alumni. However, Sumner-Winter said: “You know what’s ironic? CBU has the only national champion in the city – women’s soccer in 2002.”
If anything, Sumner-Winter said, the school has been remiss in promoting itself.
“The Brothers don’t like to brag and we sort of catch on to that,” she said. “You don’t know you’re working next to a CBU grad.”
Lensing’s own sons are ages 2 and 6, so college is a long way off. But the work she’s doing now might one day be beneficial for that generation, bettering a place where they enter to learn and leave to serve.
“Yeah,” Lensing said, “I would love for them to come here.”