As newly inaugurated Undergraduate Student Government leaders Shamina Merchant and Shawn Semmler met with Dr. J for the first of weekly meetings at Sloopy’s Diner in April 2018, a server came up to the three of them and asked for their drink order.
When it was time for Dr. J to give her order, it was an easy decision. She ordered the drink she’s ordered for the past 25 years, even before it shared her cognomen: a Diet Coke with lemonade and extra lemons. She simply responded with, “I’ll take a Dr. J.”
“That is my favorite, favorite drink of all time,” Dr. J said. “Pretty much regularly when I’m down there, you can assure I’m not having tea. You can be assured I’m having a Dr. J.”
This was one of Merchant’s first personal interactions with Senior Vice President of the Office of Student Life Javaune Adams-Gaston, who has been referred to as “Dr. J” by students and administrators throughout her tenure. But Merchant said this is still one of her favorite memories of Dr. J because it shows how she is a powerful woman and encompasses who she is.
Gordon Gee, who was president of Ohio State when Dr. J was hired in 2009, said what he initially liked about her was her confidence.
“I obviously thought very highly of her,” Gee said. “But what I liked about her was that she was very student-centered; she is very calm, and she has a nice sense of confidence about her.”
After a decadelong tenure, Dr. J will leave Ohio State in June to become president of Norfolk State University in Virginia. But as she exits the university, she will leave behind many accomplishments such as Buck-I-SERV — Ohio State’s alternative break program — expanding residence and dining facilities and increasing the number of student organizations by more than 350.
Yet she will be remembered more for the kind of person she is and how deeply she cares for students.
Merchant, who worked closely with Dr. J during her time as USG president, said that she is someone who genuinely cares about not only the student experience at Ohio State, but the students themselves.
“When you have a conversation with her, she is someone who intently listens and tries to understand not only what you’re saying, but where you’re coming from,” Merchant said. “She is somebody who, at the end of the day, is willing to fight for the right thing and what’s the best thing for students even if it makes her job description more difficult.”
“You can feel her love from a mile away. She is always going to greet you with a smile and hug whether she’s met you for the first time or the one-millionth time.”— Zach Burton, a fourth-year in communication
Dr. J said one of her favorite parts about getting to work as the vice president for student life is getting to know the students and seeing them thrive in the activities they are passionate about.
“When you are doing 300-350 events a year, you get to know swaths of students, and that’s where my joy comes from,” she said. “My joy comes from watching students in the various events and things that are important to them.”
As a student government leader, Merchant noted that Dr. J genuinely cared about herself and Semmler as individuals, and Dr. J did not stop at student leaders when it came to getting to know students on a personal level.
Zach Burton, a fourth-year in communication, has known and worked with Dr. J since his freshman year from his work with the African American Heritage Festival, Buckeye Leadership Fellows Program and as an Office of Student Life intern.
“Dr. J has definitely been a mentor for me, from the time I got on campus,” Burton said. “She even took the effort to know my name and remember my name. Once she knew my name, she would take the effort to recognize the work that I did, whatever space I was in.”
“Loving” is the first word Burton said he would use to describe Dr. J because of the way she interacts with and cares for people, no matter how well she knows them.
“You can feel her love from a mile away. She is always going to greet you with a smile and hug whether she’s met you for the first time or the one-millionth time,” Burton said.
Burton said that Dr. J was intentional with students and when she said or promised something, she meant it; Merchant also said that every conversation with Dr. J is impactful.
“Anybody who gets the chance to meet Dr. J, even if it’s just a brief conversation, even if it’s for while, there’s a degree of impact because you can see very clearly how devoted she is,” Merchant said.
Burton said she would go out of her way to try and relate to her students and get to know what is going on in their lives, while also being transparent with her own.
Dr. J said one of her favorite memories from her time at Ohio State was what she called “Tea with the VP,” where 10 to 12 students from a student organization or student population have breakfast or lunch in her office. She said she would provide sticky buns and breakfast sandwiches or pizza and chips and dip because that is “what the students love.”
“But what I love about it is we sit in a semicircle, and we just talk about what their experiences [are] and [how] they view the institution, and what they would like more from the institution,” she said. “For me, that depth of relating to students is one of the gifts I have had being here.”
Gee said working alongside Dr. J was a joyous time for him, and he felt that she set a great tone for those she worked with and impacted how they chose to interact with students.
“I spent a lot of time with students when I was there and a lot that had to do with that [was] Dr. J and her team,” Gee said. “They had me do crazy things like going out late at night to the bars and stuff like that. It was a wonderful time.”
In March, President Michael Drake said in an interview with The Lantern that Dr. J’s experience and judgment are great for the university, but she’s also such a great human being, and the faith students have in her is something the university will miss.
“Dr. J has really represented someone who is kind of at the heart of that whole community,” Drake said. “Students from different points of views, from different religious backgrounds, and other things, that we’ll come and meet over the years on a variety of issues, and she is respected and trusted by them all.”
Merchant said that no one can fill Dr. J’s shoes and that it will be hard to find someone to take her place.
“No one will replace her. We are going to miss her, and I know she is not going to leave without knowing Ohio State is in a good place,” Merchant said.
As her last few months at Ohio State wind down, Dr. J said she is looking to end her tenure with the same amount of support that she has been given by her team and that whoever takes over next will feel that same support.
As she leaves her many accomplishments behind her at Ohio State, she is humble in giving the credit to her executive team that she said has done a great job of moving projects along at the university and giving students the experience they deserve.
“I have an incredible team in student life who have just been spot on for [what] we want the best for the students,” she said. “When we talk about creating extraordinary student experience, it’s not just a tagline. It really is the heart of what we are trying to do.”
She said one of her favorite things about Ohio State is the people because of the attachment they have to the university and the vibe the campus gives as a whole and what they have accomplished.
“I will miss this community,” Dr. J said. “I think that it’s hard to leave when things are moving in an important and supportive direction.”
During her last few months, Dr. J plans to attend a Buck-I-SERV trip to South Africa that she has done with students several times over the past decade and close out the pre-departure orientation program for students who are coming in from China.
Burton said that the university will be losing an icon.
“There is just so much work that she does and to see her stretch herself thin just to make sure that even if it was just to say, ‘Hey, I can’t stay long, but just know that I see what you’re doing and it matters,’” Burton said. “She was just really good at making sure everyone knew they felt valued.”
During the last event of the African American Heritage Festival this year, Burton said Dr. J asked for all the graduating seniors to stand up, and she said to those standing that she felt like she was graduating with all of them.
After a 10-year-long tenure, Dr. J will take the stage at spring commencement wearing the scarlet and gray robe for the last time.
“I do feel like I’m graduating with this class. I really do. I feel like, ‘Wow, it only took me 10 years, but OK.’”