Alumni Q&A: Dr Cristina A. Bejan (North Carolina & Wadham 2004)
Q: How did you get your spoken word stage name Lady Godiva?
A: "So, I’m in my final Rhodes interview in Washington, D.C. The person who was chairing that interview panel, God rest his soul, was Johnny Apple, a very famous contributor to The New York Times. One of the panelists interviewing me was the former head of the CIA, who had become the director of Freedom House, which has an office in Romania. I had done my college internship at Freedom House in Bucharest. Apparently, I was just grilling this man, I was relentless in my demands about how he should help Romania. Then the panelists said, “it’s a shame we can’t see you perform,” and I said, ‘I can do a monologue for you.’ So, I performed a monologue from Arthur Miller’s The Crucible: when Abigail is accusing everyone of being a witch—and you know the play is an allegory for the McCarthy era—and apparently, after that monologue, some of the committee members had tears running down their faces. Finally, they announce I’m one of the four winners, and Johnny Apple pulls me aside and says: “you know, it’s not every day that Lady Godiva walks through that door.” He named me Lady Godiva!"
(Interview by Maria-Cristina Necula, Women Around Town, May 17, 2021)
Q: Who inspires you as a leader and why?
A: "As an individual walking the planet each day, the leader who inspires my every step is my father Adrian Bejan. He grew up in the 50s and 60s in very difficult conditions in totalitarian communist Romania, in an industrial city at the end of the Danube River: Galați. His parents were imprisoned by the regime, and his uncle spent ten years on the Canal, Romania’s most notorious labor camp. And his family – just like most families at the time – was constantly spied on by the Secret Police and their own neighbors and friends. My father won a math contest and was given a scholarship to study in the United States and arrived in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1969 speaking zero English. The 70s and 80s were the worst for Romanians because of the Ceaușescu dictatorship. Citizens suffered food shortages and starvation, heat and electricity outages (people froze to death in their apartment blocks), and abortion was banned (which led to death, women dying from illegal abortions.) During these years my parents were constantly sending care packages to our relatives in Galați: which included such items as soap, old T-shirts, coveted blue jeans, and cartons and cartons of cigarettes (not to smoke, but for bribes). This humanitarian effort was led by mother, I remember her vividly directing us on the assembly line regularly putting together these giant packages. She has always been my inspiration as well.
My father devoted his life to science. After he got his first job teaching mechanical engineering at University of Colorado Boulder, my parents decided to start their family, and I came into the picture. My father would walk across the city to the university with baby me strapped to his chest. These cross-city walks continued when our family moved to Durham, North Carolina (without me riding along, of course). I think I have established his bravery by now - it is in Durham that my father’s leadership grew to international proportions. The 1989 Romanian Revolution and fall of the Berlin Wall is the most defining moment in my family. It meant that we could finally go to Romania. My father could not return for two decades for fear of being thrown in prison for his defection. So just as Romania opened up to us American Bejans (by that point, two parents and three children), the USA opened up to Romanians. At that point the president of Duke University, Keith Brodie, approached my father and asked him to start an academic exchange program to bring Romanian professors to Duke and in turn send Duke faculty to Romania. The “Duke in Romania” program was born. This flow of educators got the word out to Romanian students who started writing to my father about applying for graduate school at Duke. Many were admitted – the word spread further – more applied. For those who could not be admitted at Duke, my father found them placements and funding at other US universities, from Clemson to Michigan, Illinois and Arizona.
I don’t know how my dad did it, raising a family, walking across the city twice a day, publishing book after article after book, coming to all our plays and sporting events, teaching full-time… who knows? But in his free moments he corresponded with and helped many Romanian students yearning for educational opportunities previously denied to them by communism.
“Duke in Romania” and its repercussions meant that in those early and mid-90s years I was surrounded by a nurturing and vibrant Romanian community, this was a key shift from the 80s when all Romanians abroad were afraid to talk to one another. The only Romanian I knew until 1991 was my own father. Only now as I approach the age when he manifested this dream, do I see what a mammoth undertaking it actually was. Among these students were two in particular: Anne-Marie and Roman who (unofficially) adopted my parents and became my older brother and sister. To this day Roman is the first to lovingly admonish me when I post something too emotional on Facebook.
“Duke in Romania” opened the door out of a shattered country. Many students found jobs and immigrated to the US, and many others returned to Romania with their American degree in hand ready to make a difference. When I won the Rhodes scholarship, I felt like I was following in my father’s footsteps. It was a merit-based academic scholarship that took him to the US, and it was the “Duke in Romania” program that changed the lives of so many young people. The Rhodes was that for me. It opened my world and mind - and provided the funding for two degrees that have made so much possible in my life.
My father is a silent leader because he is constantly helping so many people in the US and worldwide behind the scenes. Those in science know him for his academic achievements, but no one knows about the hand he is lending in dark hours of the morning to the next student and colleague. He will never tell you about that. And, of course, no one ever asks. The great leaders never once claim to be a leader. Because by labeling oneself a leader that requires some narcissism. Leaders should be the most selfless humans of all."
Dr Cristina A. Bejan (North Carolina & Wadham, 2004) is Executive Director of Bucharest Inside the Beltway and Vice-President of ARCHER – the American Romanian Coalition for Human and Equal Rights.