I remember the smell of rotting apples in the sunrise air. That bittersweet savour that floats out from under trees every November. I remember having to bundle up, even in Oklahoma, because my mom was a teacher and that meant going out before the sun rose so she could get to work in time. My favorite part was getting to pull the tall curtain shut behind us when we walked into the voting booth, or maybe it was getting an American flag sticker from the old woman who sat in front of the electric box that gobbled up my mom’s ballot. My least favorite part was the screaming picketers standing at the road who seemed to be attempting a last minute coup for their beloved candidates. They scared me. In Oklahoma, or surely anywhere south of the Mason-Dixon, election day is like a second Christmas, with funny lawn decorations, people gathering in the homes of loved ones, and a lot of praying. Being dragged into polling locations left impressions on my tiny self that I never understood the gravity of until this year.
I met our new university president through a strange circumstance a couple of years ago. I was walking past the parking lot sandwiched between the library and Bell Hall and noticed a small crowd gathering at its perimeter. Just beyond the group I saw smoke rising. Not being in too much of a hurry to get to my laborious A&P class, I took a moment to inspect the scene. The first thing I saw was then-President Andreasen standing alarmingly close to the burning car with his arms crossed and a not-too-worried expression. He was quickly asked to step back from the engine compartment that was billowing out orange flames and black smoke. The vehicle belonged to then-Provost Andrea Luxton, who also watched on without much to do but enjoy the show. When the flames and commotion were beginning to die down, I continued my walk back to the Science Complex. Passing Dr. Luxton, I reached out my hand and said awkwardly, “Hi. I’m Demetri. Sorry about your car.” I don’t remember her response, but I do remember her smile. It was cool, so outshining, collected even in the face of a disastrous morning.
During her inauguration, I saw that same smile on the stage of PMC, coming from a woman I’ve gained monumental respect for in recent months. Her expression was just as cool, and just as bright as the strange morning I met her. When she said, “We are going to be unstoppable,” I believed her. When she said “Culture trumps strategy every time,” I knew she was a leader who valued the unique life stories of every student listening to her. This statement weighed extra-heavily on the ears of the audience, because we are nearing the end of an election cycle in which questions of marginalization and discrimination are dominating political rhetoric. 2016 has been a year of choice, one in which consistency of character has been paramount to those who must do the choosing.
Choice is what what was instilled in me the chilly November mornings that I was dragged into voting booths. Choosing to not allow someone else to dictate where your life will go, at least not without posing a fight. A few weeks ago I sat in President Luxton’s office and she stressed to me that we must never let anyone write our stories for us, that we alone should hold that. During his address at the inauguration, William Johnsson, long time editor of The Adventist Review, stated that Luxton has reached great levels of success, but she “has not done so on a level playing field.” The fact that Luxton is the first woman president of Andrews University does not make her any less or any more qualified for the position, but it is significant because it stands as a testament that even within an institution that has been often accused of marginalizing her gender, she has chosen to not allow others’ mindsets or strategies dictate how her story will be written.
I’m not a believer that everything happens for a reason, but I am certain that the inauguration of this specific leader was supposed to happen in such a time as this. In the choices I make, November 8 and onward, I want to remember her words: “We are stronger when we work together and realize the potential that lies in our combined experience.”