Being able to give back to the community where she came from inspired Ranessa Cooper to start her own fund with the Washington County Community Foundation in 2008.
"I spent a lot of my childhood outdoors in the country and I enjoyed being in nature," she said.
When she was in the third grade, her parents divorced. A year later, her mom, Irene, married Clyde Clark and a year later, her brother, Matthew was born.
"Matthew and I are 10 years apart in age, but we are close," said Ranessa.
In 1993 Ranessa graduated from Salem High School and received a loan through a local bank that was set up in honor of Audrey Mounts. The loan gave her $1,325 a year, interest free, during her college years.
"It had a huge impact on my life and my education," she said. "I made my way through school with scholarships, loans and work-study programs. The money I received from the Audrey Mounts Scholarship was an important source of funding for my education."
When she was in the 8th grade, Ranessa won a DAR essay award and had a brief encounter with Audrey Mounts.
"I recall that she was pleasant and kind and then later, when I received her scholarship loan, I remembered those qualities about her," she said.
Ranessa said she knew in high school that she wanted to pursue biology after graduation and she followed that dream at Truman State University.
"Mr. Greg McCurdy was a major inspiration and I had other mentors along the way, too," she said. "I have both BA and BS degrees in biology from Truman, as well as a Ph. D. in Plant Biology from the University of Alberta."
Greg said that when Ranessa graduated he drove her step-dad and mom out to Truman and stayed a couple of days to celebrate the occasion.
"I had the opportunity to meet Dr. Osborn (one of Ranessa's professors), many of Ranessa's friends and coworkers, and the president of the university," said Greg. "I was impressed that he knew Ranessa personally and was attuned to her accomplishments."
While at Truman, Ranessa took Greg to the lab where she worked and gave him a lesson in using the scanning electron microscope that she used in her research.
"It was a rewarding three days that I will never forget," he said.
Greg said a teacher's rewards do not come in the form of monitary gain, but rather in seeing how lives change as a result of their influence.
He said that when Ranessa first arrived at Truman she started a recycling program in the residence hall where she was living. Ranessa had been part of the group of Salem High School students who started the curbside program in the City of Salem. When the program got too large for the club to operate, the city (at the time under the direction of Mayor Frank Newkirk) was able to get a grant and take over the program.
"There always seems to be a little taste of Salem wherever Ranessa goes," said Greg.
Ranessa now lives in Jonesville, Michigan, and works at Hillsdale College as a professor of biology.
Although she was born in a small town, Ranessa has grown to appreciate the big city life as well.
"Growing up in a small town has a lot of advantages, but there are a lot of other environments one should experience before settling down," she said. "I learned a great deal by living in larger cities and I was able to better appreciate the diversity this world has to offer."
She said many aspects of life are often treated as " black or white," but she disagrees.
"There are many shades of gray to consider, and one's life experiences play a major role in these perceptions," she said.
Greg said, "One of the things that impress me most about Ranessa is the fact that she has never lost a sense of her roots. Even though she is a professor of biology at Hillsdale College in Michigan she follows local happenings and when she is home, she takes part in local events. At times she's almost like Dorothy 'clicking her heels together' on her ruby slippers and uttering 'There's no place like home.' She pops up, spreads cheer and then she's back off to Michigan.
"I love this kid to death. She is a fantastic role model for our students and I see her doing great things in her career, by going on to inspire others at a higher level."
Ranessa said her advice for students would be to work hard and appreciate the little things in life. "Time management skills and being fiscally responsible can take one a long way in life just add motivation and drive and one should be on the road to success," she said.
Ranessa is hoping to help graduating seniors get a good start on that road with the Dr. Ranessa L. Cooper Science Scholarship Fund.
Although she did not want to name the fund after herself, she was encouraged by friends and colleagues to do so.
"I had received tenure and promotion at Hillsdale College, so I had extra income and decided this was an appropriate use for it," she said."It has really been a treat to be on the donor-side of the funding process."
She said she wants future generations of Washington County residents to remember her as someone who worked hard to obtain a good education, as well as someone who values the art of giving.
"It's an honor to be able to do this," said Ranessa. "Just knowing that I am helping students, just as I was helped all those years ago, means the most to me."