Jasmine Turner ’15 admitted to shedding a tear, “or five … or twenty, ” when Elon University President Leo Lambert announced plans to step down earlier this week.
Without him, she wouldn’t be where she is today.
Though she lives in Richmond — almost 200 miles away from her alma mater — working as a reporter for NBC 12, her presence remains visible on campus. Her face regularly greets School of Communications students — whether they are jogging to their 8 a.m. Schar Hall class or leaving a computer lab late after a hard day’s work.
She’s one of dozens illuminated on the megatron, a technologic Hall of Fame painted with portraits of alumni and current students. But while it’s understandable if she were arrogant, her mindset is different. As an African-American, she’s motivated to pave a path for future students who look like her. She strives to exemplify how to succeed as a minority at a predominately white institution.
But she said none of this would be possible without Lambert’s ambition to make Elon more inclusive.
“Seeing President Lambert doing what he’s done, it should be a driving force to keep the work going,” Turner said. “As an African-American alumni of our university, I’m going to keep working so that other black men and women at our university, Latino and all different sections of sexual orientation, will have the experience that I had. It makes me not want to stop working at all costs and stop at nothing to keep the work of diversifying our campus.”
Elon University Alumna
Turner, a Youth Board of Trustee member, was present in Florida when Lambert disclosed the news. At first, she was shocked, saying, “I expected him to be president forever.” But after recollecting on Lambert's 18 years of service, Turner understood his decision. Over the arc of her Elon career, the two have developed a unique bond. After speaking to the graduating class at Spring 2016 Commencement, Turner was surprised when Lambert unexpectedly complimented her. He acknowledged his pride for her and her ability to utilize the most of her education.
When he did that, Turner said he didn't see the color of her skin — all he saw was someone he admired. His nearly two-decade presidency also supports this.
In 1999-2000, his first academic year as president, only 315 ethnically diverse students were enrolled. In 2016-2017, that number surged to 1011. Other initiatives Lambert started where the Center for Race, Ethnicity and Diversity Education, the Center for Access and Success and El Centro. When state and national situations questioned the welfare of marginalized groups, such as House Bill 2 and President Donald Trump’s executive order on immigration, Lambert immediately responded, saying he would do everything in his power to protect his students. Randy Williams, associate vice president for campus engagement, said Lambert’s actions mirror his personal morals.
“If someone has done all of these things that Leo has done, in terms of diversity and inclusivity, that is a reflection of him and his ability to apply his values,” Williams said. "His work as the CEO of this organization trickles down to everything else to come.”
Turner compared Lambert to the late Dr. James Earl Danieley, the Elon president who admitted the first black student at Elon College in 1963. Turner, who previously worked at WECT News in Wilmington, is also close friends with Eugene Perry ’69, the first black Elon graduate. She said Lambert’s motor toward proactively diversifying the campus is commendable . Danieley set the first precedent, but Turner said Lambert has tried to create his own path.
“Being friends with Eugene Perry has really changed my perspective,” Turner said. " To see the work that Dr. Danieley did and to see President Lambert saying years later that, ‘Yes the makeup of our campus has changed, but I’m not just going to be cool with it,’ is awesome. At the end of the day, what made my experience at Elon so special is the community and the place because people deserve that experience.”
That experience is one sophomore Eric Cunningham was given to because of Lambert's contributions. Cunningham is a Watson Odyssey scholar, a program that Lambert has aided in fostering. Because of this program, Cunningham was able to attend Elon, and for that, he is grateful.
"Being an Odyssey scholar is an experience that provided me with the opportunity to come to Elon and get a post-secondary education as rigorous and as academic as Elon is," Cunningham said. " I think that speaks to his character that he is involved in a program such as this, as well as his willingness to serve others. And that really is what his presidency has embodied at Elon —the willingness to serve others, the ability to find discrepancies on campus and work towards fixing them."
Jon Dooley, assistant vice president for student life and dean of campus life, reflects on President Lambert's legacy regarding inclusivity.
Sylvia Munoz, interim director of the CREDE, agreed. She’s been at Elon since 1998 and has seen Lambert evolve over time. But while she suggested some colleges promote inclusion simply to fill a quota, Lambert authentically wants to incorporate minorities because it’s the right thing to do.
Lambert has been outspoken on a number of controversial issues involving marginalized groups, such as House Bill 2 and President Donald Trump’s 13th executive order.
“He doesn't do it just for the numbers,” Munoz said. “ A lot of universities do it just for the visibility. He doesn't just bring them but makes sure that there is a support system in place. And you can see the difference.”
Williams and Munoz said it will be difficult to find another president with the centric values Lambert holds. But while the university continues its search for its ninth president, Turner said it was an honor to be a student — and now a friend — of a man who has helped nurture the school she loves.
Video by Olivia Ryan
“He truly has lived Elon’s honor code and I know he will continue to live out the values of our university and what it means to lead with honesty and respect,” Turner said. "Leo Lambert is a legend, a man who loved Elon and a man who will always embody what it means to be a Phoenix.”