Skip to main content

Scholarships Helped Fuel Grad’s Desire to Give Back to Future Students

Byron Tenesaka

Byron Tenesaca

Attending Western Carolina University is where Byron Tenesaca made the biggest decision of his life.

Up until he arrived in Cullowhee, Tenesaca planned to enter the medical profession as a biology major with a pre-med concentration. It's what his high school advisers, as well as his mother, always pushed him towards.

But during his second semester as a freshman at WCU, Tenesaca had a revelation. He realized his passion and purpose was in something entirely different: art. It was a life-changing moment for Tenesaca.

"It was a big eye-opener for me as a person," Tenesaca said. "I've loved drawing ever since I could remember, but I didn't think of making a career out of it. I decided to change my major, which I think was the first big decision that I made independently outside of my home. It was very nerve racking in the sense that I wasn't sure of the job opportunities. I knew that anything I put my heart to I would be able to succeed. That's the decision that I made."

Tenesaca, who now resides in Arden and works for Buncombe County Schools as a Spanish interpreter and also is involved with their after-school program, will continue on that path this fall when he enters WCU's Masters of Arts in Teaching program so he can pursue his dream of becoming a high school bilingual art teacher, focusing on drawing and photography.

He was able to pursue his dream with the aid of scholarships from the Friends of the Arts and Delta Sigma Phi.

A painting by Byron Tenesaca


"The scholarships helped me with a big portion of my tuition and I was blessed and thankful for that," Tenesaca said. "It was also a defining factor for finishing my degree, honestly, because looking back on my last year, something happened with my financial aid and I was struggling to finish paying for school. The scholarships I were given at the time really helped me with that."

Tenesaca was born in Ecuador where he was raised by his grandmother until he was 11, at which time he moved to the United States to live with his mother and stepfather in Burlington. He graduated from Cummings High School, which was predominantly African-American and Hispanic, Tenesaca said.

He was an honor roll student who graduated fourth in his class. During an Open House visit to WCU, Tenesaca was convinced Cullowhee was the place for him.

Byron Tenesaka Paints


"I just fell in love with the environment and the mountains," he said. "It reminded me of my childhood. In Ecuador, I grew up in a small village in the Andes mountains. The beauty of having
the campus in the mountains, I thought it was great. It's an isolated place surrounded by nature and I thought that was unique. I didn't know this existed in North Carolina."

During his time at WCU, Tenesaca had a chance meeting with Chancellor David O. Belcher. While walking across campus one day, he crossed paths with Belcher. He shook his hand and asked if he could take his picture for a portrait assignment of faculty members that he was working on. Belcher obliged.

"His energy that he gave off to everyone, he cared for all of the students," Tenesaca said. "Even if you didn't get to meet him personally, you could see that he really cared for the school and the students. I think everyone's experience with him was great."

Byron Tenesaka's portrait of Chancellor Belcher


In addition to becoming a bilingual art teacher, Tenesaca is passionate about giving back to the community the way his former teachers and instructors gave to him at time when he needed support.

"I want to do that for other people, and not because I feel obligated, but because I find joy in it and that's where my heart lies," Tenesaca said.

He wants to be able to give Latino students the tools they need to create art and photography that brings their unique cultural experiences to life, and he believes students benefit from having teachers and mentors who can identify with their perspective. "That's something I'm passionate about when it comes to inclusion or diversity or equal representation," Tenesaca said.

Before beginning his M.A.T. program this fall, Tenesaca will be a camp counselor at El Pueblo Spanish Camp in Chattanooga, Tennessee this summer, as well as teach a photography class at The Bascom, a center for visual arts in Highlands.

To give towards the LEAD THE WAY CAMPAIGN to benefit the next generation of aspiring WCU alumni, please visit here or call 828-227-7124.

By Marlon Morgan

Office of Web Services