By Wynn McDonald
Joseph and Angela Schmidt were fresh-faced graduates from the newly-merged Bellarmine/Ursuline College when they got married, 50 years ago this December, at the Bellarmine Chapel on campus.
The wedding was actually two separate ceremonies: first Catholic style, and then again in traditional Thai custom, honoring the bride’s home country. According to a Dec. 23, 1969, Courier Journal article about the event, the Thai portion included anointment with purifying water poured from a shell, flower leis, and a white cord draped over the couple’s heads to symbolize unity.
Within a few short weeks, Joe was deployed to Vietnam, and Angela had returned to Bangkok. But they stayed firm in their commitment over the years and never forgot the place that brought them together.
In 2018, in recognition of their 50th anniversary, the Schmidts made a $50,000 donation to Bellarmine, funding an international exchange program that will provide $5,000 each semester for the next five years to 10 students coming from and going to Thammasat University in Bangkok. Starting this year, the scholarship supports one Thammasat student traveling to Louisville for the fall, followed by a Bellarmine student spending the spring semester in Thailand.
“The world is full of wonderful opportunities; you just have to let yourself take a step,” Angela Schmidt said in a phone interview from the couple’s home in Chicago. “[With] this program, we want to allow the students to take that step.”
The first recipient of the Schmidt Scholarship was Pornteera “Mind” Seehanawee. Seehanawee grew up in Udon Thani, in Northeast Thailand, but came to the U.S. for high school, staying with relatives in Minnesota before returning home and attending Thammasat—one of the highest-ranked universities in Thailand. A business and technology management major, she said she has greatly enjoyed her time at Bellarmine this fall.
“Everyone is so kind,” Seehanawee said. “It’s really like a family to me.”
Through the international Peer Mentor Program, Seehanawee has made a close-knit group of friends. She said her favorite memories from this semester include a weekend trip to St. Louis with them and a “Friendsgiving” celebration where each student made a different dish representing their own traditional cultures. Last week, she picked her first “Secret Santa.”
During this time, she has also gotten to know Zoey Rister, the sophomore political science major who is going to Thailand in the spring, and given her some advice on what to expect.
“I met [Mind] before I made the decision to go,” Rister said. “She’s been telling me what to bring and what to wear… she’s helped a lot.”
Rister has plenty of international experience, having lived in or visited 13 different countries growing up due to her parents’ work—including a brief trip to China, where she fell in love with Asian culture. When she heard about the Thailand opportunity, she jumped at the chance to revisit it independently, with a little help from the Schmidts.
“This whole opportunity wouldn’t have happened without financials, honestly,” Rister said. “The scholarship helped a lot.”
For Joe and Angela, giving that opportunity—and helping today’s students follow in their footsteps—means everything.
“The concept of this scholarship is to get people out of their comfort zone, the culture they know, and experience another culture, which is what we did,” Joe said.
Sure enough, the mixed-tradition wedding proved to be the start of a lifetime of cross-cultural experience for the two alums. After Joe finished his deployment, the couple moved to New York City, where they both earned master’s degrees from Columbia University (in law and finance, respectively). They lived in New York for the next 38 years, raising their family there, and they have visited Angela’s relatives in Thailand nearly every year since their marriage.
Now retired, the Schmidts spend at least three months a year in Thailand. As part of their commitment to the program, they plan to greet the inbound Bellarmine student upon his or her arrival in Bangkok each January, as well as invite both of that year’s scholarship recipients to their beach-front condo in Hua Hin over a school break to celebrate the Thai new year.
According to the Schmidts, who have two adult daughters, these gestures are planned as good faith toward worried parents.
“You just don’t know [what to do] when people are away from home and problems happen,” Angela said. “Now they have someone else [nearby] that they can talk to, basically.”
For Seehanawee, this relationship has been a significant one. She met the Schmidts for the first time shortly after classes began in August, when they came to town to get dinner with her and the exchange program’s coordinator, Dr. Gabriele Bosley. Mind immediately formed a connection with Angela, with whom she was able to carry on a very “genuine” conversation in Thai.
“I feel really warm talking to her,” Seehanawee said. “[The Schmidts] are becoming more friends than just donors.”
Rister, who they met for lunch on a separate occasion, also expressed appreciation for the couple.
“They seem like a true yin and yang,” she said. “Two parts that shouldn’t fit together but actually do.”
After 50 years together, the Schmidts’ yin-yang relationship is stronger than ever. Now, they hope to spread awareness of the scholarship, which they see as a chance to give back to the place that brought them together so long ago.
The application, which has no requirements beyond student status, can be accessed through Bellarmine’s Office of Study Abroad and International Learning. For more information, students can contact Bosley at email@example.com.
According to Angela, all it takes is a little courage.
“If [the students] that go through this program become as fearless as we were,” she said, “the world is within their hands to reach.”