Cassandra Sato cradled her palms around her warm Morton College travel mug, hoping the coffee inside would calm the churning in her stomach. Half anticipation, half impatience at wasting her time, uncertainty was the last thing she needed her boss to see at the start of their probationary coaching meeting. She fixed a serene expression on her face, pretending to admire the view from his picture window, while reviewing her mental list of the issues he might raise. As the youngest person to earn a doctorate in education from the University of Hawai’i at age 28, she had years of practice appearing more mature and confident than she felt. Still, feeling confident in the tropical sunshine of Manoa was much easier than squirming on an antique wooden armchair in Carson, Nebraska-population 8,300-in an office that best resembled a British men’s club.
After two months as Student Affairs administrator, the honeymoon period was wearing off. Ten more probation meetings to go until her contract became permanent. She blew out a sigh. No big deal. She’d only relocated thousands of miles for this job.
The office door swung open and her boss eased in, a large ceramic platter in his arms. Cassandra stood respectfully. “Good afternoon, Dr. Nielson.” She made to help him with the dish, but he waved her off, placing it on his desk.
A moist, yeasty smell of freshly-baked bread tinged with something sour drew her eyes to the pile of baked golden-brown dough rounds. Nielson raised his bushy gray eyebrows and nodded, his eager expression one she would call pride. “My wife home-baked some bierocks. Please, help yourself.”
Nebraskans enjoyed sharing homemade food and excess produce just like her co-workers back home, although sampling new dishes at work was often dicey. The snacks resembled manapua, but she doubted his wife made them from scratch.
Although he graciously offered her a napkin, his toothy smile hinted at a dare. “Do Hawaiians eat bierocks, too?”
She swallowed the automatic I’m-not-Hawaiian reply that popped into her head. It was too complicated to correct him—again. Native Hawaiian meant a Polynesian descendant, not simply any Hawai’i state resident. Anyone familiar with the islands would never confuse the two. Grinding her back teeth together, she pasted a smile onto her face. “Thank you, Dr. Nielson, I’ll try one.”
She chose a small piece and bit into the soft, warm crust. Looking away, she tasted hamburger, Swiss cheese, salt, pepper and . . . and . . . Was he seriously trying to gross her out about food? Her regular diet included dried seaweed, octopus and taro root. She’d grown up believing Spam was its own food group.
Lightly tanned crow’s feet framed his twinkling blue eyes. “Becky’s secret ingredient is to mix in a little sauerkraut with the cabbage.”
Cassandra’s main experience with cabbage was fermented in kimchi, and this was quite different. Not disgusting, but probably an acquired taste. She politely said, “Your wife is an excellent cook, sir.”
Hanging his suit jacket on a wooden coat rack, he opened the top button on his blue shirt and tugged his tie an inch looser while seating himself behind the desk. He referred to their meeting agenda. “Are you up to speed on Morton’s upcoming capital campaign?”
The armchair creaked as she adjusted her wool pencil skirt and reached for her Moleskine journal on the edge of his desk. “I received the donor analysis and architectural renderings you emailed.” She flipped to a blank page and headed it “Probation meeting” with the date.
Reading glasses perched on the end of his nose, he laid a finger on his desk calendar and sighed. “Unfortunately, our Chinese contacts rescheduled my team’s cultural exchange trip to conflict with Homecoming next week. I need you to pinch hit for me at the finance committee meeting on Tuesday. One key player is Board President Dr. Schneider. You’ll replace me in the Homecoming Parade with Schneider, the grand marshal. Do your homework and get to know him.”
Nodding, she noted the meeting, retrieved her travel mug from the floor, and sipped fragrant Kona coffee. Homecoming parades were not her forte, but she welcomed the extra duties. His absence would be an opportunity to practice her management skills at the highest level.
His voice became stern. “In addition, you need to leave the office more. Get out on campus and talk to the constituents. I should invite you to the next dinner reception I host at my house. There are key people you need to talk to and find out their agenda. I need to know you are on my team working to advance Morton College into the future.” He wrote a reminder on his agenda about the dinner invitation.
Constituents? What was wrong with calling them students? Disciplining undergrads and mentoring thesis candidates comprised a good chunk of Cassandra’s daily schedule. Turning a few pages in her journal, she said, “I attended the faculty welcome orientation and luncheon several weeks after I started work in August.”
His dinner invitation fell in line with the carefully choreographed steps she’d taken since she was twenty years old to get this far. Finally, she was breaking into the old boys’ club, meeting decision makers and gaining valuable leadership experience towards her goal of becoming a university president.
“Yes, that’s a start, but you need to do more to dispel the stereotype that you’re a shy, quiet Oriental.” His sudden smile promised a great idea. “Hey, while I’m thinking about it . . . maybe you can give me language tips for how to greet the welcoming group when I arrive in China next week.”
Resisting the urge to roll her eyes, she said, “Dr. Nielson, I’ve never been to China either. I don’t speak any Chinese.” It wasn’t the first time she’d tried to set him straight on her ethnicity and background, but correcting her boss required delicacy. He had a reputation for ping-ponging between creative problem solver and theatrically moody despot with no patience for weakness or indecisiveness. “I was born and raised in Waipahu, Hawai’i where my family has lived for generations—110 years. They originally came from Japan, and most people nowadays call people who look like me Asian.” Her grandmother would jump out of her sickbed and slap his ruddy face if she heard him mistake Cassandra for a Chinese girl.
The crease between his brows furrowed for a few seconds, then he shrugged it off. She wanted to believe he meant well, but his ignorance set her on edge sometimes. He thumbed through a folder, handing her the homecoming event flyer. “This is a bad time for me to leave town. You’ll need to coordinate with the other administrators to cover events.”
Relieved he was on track with the meeting’s purpose again, she skimmed the schedule: game night, a carnival, the parade, and Saturday’s football game. A sidebar advertised lunch and tours for visiting alumni.
Nielson cleared his throat and puffed out his chest. “Obviously, the staff will take care of logistics, but I expect you to come out of the office and handle your share of hospitality duties.”
Welcoming guests with “aloha spirit” was much more Cassandra’s comfort zone than parades. She pulled up her phone’s calendar app. “Shall I ask Julie to put my name down for the events that remain unfilled?”
He said, “I’m concerned, Dr. Sato, about student and public perceptions when you represent this office. My personal support can’t completely overcome negative episodes like the photo of you and that preacher woman . . .” Shaking his gray-haired head, his lips pursed together in disapproval.
A warning quiver tiptoed down her spine. Last week Dr. Nielson had called her into his office, scolding her like a teenager out past curfew over one photo taken out of context. His bringing it up again was a bad omen. “I hired you because of your impressive credentials and journal articles. The search committee’s support of your hiring was divided because of your limited administrative experience. I convinced them we needed to bring some diversity to our campus here in the middle of white America.”
Well, he was right about that part. More than 83% of Morton College’s students were Caucasian. “I expected you to handle committee assignments, teach leadership classes, and deal with student affairs cases as well as supervise the team of directors who report to you.”
Pulling out a copy of the photo that had gotten her new job off to a shaky start, he laid it on the desk between them. Leaning forward and lowering his voice, he counseled, “Use more discretion about your public appearances. We need this woman to move on. We don’t want you or Morton seen as a laughingstock.”
That bierock now sat more like a rock in her stomach than a cozy welcome. Cassandra was no expert on social media, but the photo seemed harmless overall. Okay, probably she shouldn’t have stopped to chat with such a memorable figure in the open, but calling her a laughingstock went too far. She’d written off the inappropriate anonymous emails she’d received as cranks, but Nielson’s disapproval was more serious.
Perfectly timed, a brisk knock sounded on the door. His assistant, Julie, stepped halfway into the office. “Dr. Nielson, uh . . . excuse me. Campus s-security is on the phone. A body was found at the Edgerton Science building. A d-dead body. What do you want me to t-tell them?”
Cassandra’s head jerked around to look into Julie’s somber, pale face. Returning her gaze to Dr. Nielson, they stared at each other in momentary disbelief. He said, “We are on our way over.”