In an era when a black man has been elected President of the United States, having Elisabeth Joy Martin elected the first white Miss Kentucky State University should come as no surprise.
And it didn't for Martin or the 314 students who voted for her last month at the historically black university in Frankfort. Martin received 115 more votes than her nearest competitor in one of the largest voting turnouts in the last decade at the school.
"It wasn't about politics," said Martin, who's 21, a fifth-year senior and describes KSU as her "dream college."
"It was about building relationships."
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KSU President Mary Evans Sias said the "overwhelming victory" was an endorsement from the school's diverse student body.
"People forget that 40 percent of our students are other than African-American," Sias said. "We have an increasing number of students of diverse backgrounds. She couldn't win without the support of all the students."
Martin has built relationships by being very involved on campus. She has tutored fellow students, participated in and led a Bible study group, and lived on campus for four years. She's a popular and familiar face there.
And her campaign was a well-oiled machine, composed of 75 volunteers who targeted specific demographics to canvass. Some campaigned among commuter students and others with international students, non-traditional students and with graduate students. Campaign posters were written in Spanish and Korean, which she has studied, as well as English, French and Arabic.
And she was vying for a position no other white woman had ever held.
"I had trust in my fellow students," she said. "Diversity was more important to them."
Born the third of nine children to Starla and James Martin of Shelbyville, Elisabeth and her siblings were home-schooled. She is majoring in English education and hopes to attend graduate school, majoring in international relations.
Martin said she was sold on KSU for college after meeting representatives of the school and visiting the campus.
"People said, 'Are you nuts?'" she recalled. "They thought I should go to the University of Kentucky or University of Louisville or one of the other major schools in the state."
She would have none of it. Martin loves the small class size and the family atmosphere at KSU, she said.
"My four years here have been fantastic," she said, adding that that's why she wanted to be Miss KSU.
Martin's parents weren't sure it was a good idea, however.
"We were like, 'Elisabeth, do you think that they are going to let you do that?'" said her mother, Starla Martin.
Starla was afraid people might think her daughter was trying to usurp their authority or run for Miss KSU just to be the first white title-holder.
"But she was running because she is a girl who wants to make a difference on the campus that she loves," Starla Martin said. "She wanted to see how God could use her there."
Martin and Sean Nichols, Mr. KSU, will be crowned in October at homecoming. Reaction to the election has been mostly positive. Starla Martin has seen a negative comment online that "wasn't very nice," and Sias said a few alumni are upset. But other alums say it simply points out that white students have been fully engaged in all aspects of the university for a long period of time, she said.
"This goes a long way in terms of saying that as the Commonwealth's most diverse university, this happens in daily practice," Sias said. "She will be a good representative. We've always been very fortunate since I've been here to have good representatives."
Sias, who has known Martin since she arrived on campus as a freshman, said Martin is one of those people everyone knows by name. Martin has held several leadership positions on campus, Sias said.
Martin takes her election seriously and wants to use her tenure to improve the connection KSU has with Frankfort, and to target women's issues. She already has held a luncheon for the other three women in the competition and hopes to have all of them working with her during the coming year.
"All three are talented," she said. "I'm glad they are on my court. I can't do this work by myself."
During her reign, which begins in July, Martin will visit schools and civic groups to speak about KSU. She also will attend the Miss National Black College Alumni Hall of Fame in Atlanta in September and vie for that title. As a contestant there, she will be pictured in Ebony and Jet magazines, which are geared to a black audience.
Each year, Miss KSU hosts a women's conference, which Martin will help plan. She said she wants to make sure all women know there is no reason for them to feel degraded by society.
"I'm about family, church and women," she said. "Christianity is my biggest example, the most important influence in my life. And there is no other school I'd rather attend than K-State."