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Outside university duties, NMSU provost combines love of horses, dance

Sometimes, the things that meant the most to us in childhood return to play an important role later in life. For New Mexico State University Provost Wendy Wilkins, an early love of interests as different as ballet and horses has come full circle over the years.

New Mexico State University Executive Vice President and Provost Wendy K. Wilkins and her horse, Spellbound, compete in a dressage event. (Photo by Jay A. Rodman.)

Wilkins joined NMSU as executive vice president and provost in July 2010. Coming to New Mexico was a longtime goal - she and her husband, Jay Rodman, have owned land near Taos for several years and as a linguist by academic training, one facet of life in New Mexico particularly stands out for Wilkins.

"It matters that I speak Spanish," she said. That audible evidence of the multi--culturalism of the state makes Wilkins feel right at home here.

Coming to New Mexico also has given the provost opportunities to continue to explore her passion for horses, and to revisit her love of dancing, in an unexpected way.

Wilkins' interest in horses started early, when she received a pony as a gift from her father when she was 8 years old. The black-and-white Shetland/Welsh pony "Poncho" stirred a passion for horses that later included a competitive element. Aboard a speedy quarter horse named "Salty Sage," Wilkins competed in Gymkhanas, barrel racing and even the fast and furious "El Pato," the national sport of Argentina that combines elements of polo and basketball.

Racing from barrel to barrel, or from goal to goal, hanging on to a speeding horse only partly described Wilkins' thrilling early years, growing up in Phoenix and Sedona, Ariz., where she attended high school. It turns out there was another, quieter, daintier side of the future provost: ballet.

Under the tutelage of a strict Russian teacher, Wilkins thrived as a dancer and even managed to keep her two worlds separate. Her cowboy and rodeo friends knew little or nothing of her dance aspirations, and vice versa. Mrs. Sussman the Russian ballet teacher certainly would have thought twice about having one of her students out riding horses, and her rodeo pals might have taken a spill at the thought of Wendy Wilkins the barrel racer pirouetting across the stage in a tutu!

But the time to go to college also was the time to make a choice, and Wilkins chose to be a dance major, enrolling at Bennington College in Vermont and leaving Salty Sage, El Pato and the barrels behind.

During the next 25 years, Wilkins would embark on many adventures and see her academic pursuits blossom, but her reluctant farewell to the equine world could only last so long.

Unfortunately, the prospects of completing a degree as a dancer did not work out. A worsening knee injury eventually led the dance program faculty at Bennington to insist Wilkins not take any more studio dance classes. Discouraged, Wilkins left college for a few years, then enrolled in Latin American Studies at UCLA. Discovering an interest in languages (Spanish and Portuguese), Wilkins decided to refocus.

"So I switched majors to linguistics, not realizing that linguistics was not about learning to speak a bunch of languages," Wilkins said. "But after I took my first actual linguistics course, I was hooked."

Wilkins was offered a four-year fellowship for graduate school at UCLA, and spent the fourth year of the fellowship as a visiting scientist at MIT. That was followed by a position as a faculty member at the University of Massachusetts in the number-two-ranked linguistics department in the country. A chance encounter with a visiting faculty member from Mexico led to an opportunity to conduct research at the Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. That led to seven years in faculty positions in Mexico.

Wilkins returned to the U.S. in 1985 as a visiting faculty member in linguistics at the University of Washington. The next year, she landed a tenure-track faculty position in the Department of English at Arizona State University, which seemed at the time to be a temporary diversion from her concentration on linguistics, but turned out to be the key that opened the door for the administrative phase of her career.

She rapidly progressed in the ASU English department, from associate chair to interim chair to chair, a position she held from 1992-1994. Her next position, associate dean for academic personnel in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at ASU, ran from 1994-1998.

Her next step in administration helped pave the way for the future in two important ways. Serving as dean of the College of Arts and Letters at Michigan State University meant becoming very familiar with the land-grant mission.

"I was quite sold on the land-grant service mission," she said.

Her time at Michigan State also gave her a chance to renew her passion for horses - after a 25-year hiatus.

"They have an equine program with all Arabians," she said. "It is the third-oldest Arabian herd in the U.S."

In no time, Wilkins was involved, purchasing an Arabian from the university's equine breeding program - "MSU Spellbound"- and exploring a new opportunity for competition on horseback once again - this time in dressage: competitive horse training that has its roots in the Renaissance and has competitive events at all levels, from amateur to Olympic.

The icing on the cake came last year - after almost a decade at MSU and a three-year stint at the University of North Texas as provost and vice president for academic affairs. In May 2010, Wilkins accepted an appointment as executive vice president and provost at NMSU. With her new post came a renewed commitment to spending precious moments with Spellbound in the dressage arena, working on graceful piaffes and pirouettes. Already, she has had three opportunities to compete.

And so, the young woman with a bad knee that blocked a passion for dance and an academic career that didn't allow time or space for anything equine found herself later in life as an accomplished university administrator with a chance to combine the two loves of her life: competing on horseback, and doing so in a discipline - dressage - that is also commonly known as "Horse Ballet."