FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) _ At a pulsating pep rally, students cheered and swayed to high-energy music as Miss Kentucky State University Elisabeth Martin stood out for more than her stint as emcee.
Nearly everyone watching from the bleachers was black, and Martin is white.
Standing near the gym's midcourt, Martin seemed at ease in the limelight. She hugged the school president, and urged the crowd to cheer for athletes and dance performers, each time getting a rousing response.
For 79 years, Miss KSU was black. But that streak ended in the spring when Martin was elected by a wide margin at the historically black college in Kentucky's capital city.
KSU President Mary Evans Sias said Martin won because of her character, not because of her race.
Martin waged a savvy campaign. She reached out to the diverse student population, where the non-black student population is about 40 percent. That high percentage is in part attributed to the smaller black population in Kentucky, compared with other Southern states.
“This was the year for change, so Elisabeth Martin is our change,'' Mr. KSU Sean Nichols said, referring to Barack Obama's election as the nation's first black president.
Martin, a fixture in KSU clubs and activities on the small campus, downplays her status at the university originally known as the State Normal School for Colored Persons.
“I didn't run to be the first white Miss KSU,'' she said. “I ran to be an individual who serves the university.''
Alvin Thornton, interim provost and a political science professor at Howard University in Washington, D.C., said it was unusual for a white student to win campuswide election at a historically black college. But he said it shouldn't be unexpected.
“This is another testimony to the fact that these schools have never discriminated against people and never been exclusionary,'' he said.
As Miss KSU, Martin represents the school off campus, speaking to alumni and civic groups, and appearing at parades. Martin, an English major in her fifth year, keeps campus office hours, mentors students and does community service. She spoke at summer orientation sessions and urged incoming freshmen to focus on class work and make the most of their college years.
Her words impressed Symone Peterson, who was surprised at first that Miss KSU was white.
“But once you get to know her, she's real nice,'' said Peterson, a freshman from Indianapolis. “She's very welcoming. She does her job well.''
Martin's election wasn't initially embraced by everyone on the approximately 2,800-student campus.
Second-semester freshman Javae Edwards, who hugged Martin after the pep rally, said: “When she did win, a lot of people were upset because … she is white. They were just making a big deal out of skin color.''
But those feelings have dissipated as students see Martin carrying out her duties, she said.
“It's not really a big deal like it was when she was first elected,'' said Edwards, of Detroit.
Erika Harrell, who finished third in the Miss KSU election, said Martin has done an outstanding job representing the school in a stressful situation.
“Some students didn't like it,'' Harrell, a junior from Columbus, Ohio, said of Martin's election. “Some people are just set in their ways.''
Martin tries to deflect criticism, such as comments after her election that she couldn't relate to black students. “Most of the time, people who made those comments, they didn't know who I was,'' she said.
Martin, who grew up a tomboy in a family of nine children in rural Shelby County, made KSU's ethnic diversity a cornerstone of her campaign. Banners were written in Spanish, French, Korean and Arabic as well as English. After graduation, she plans to seek a master's degree in international relations.
“I find everyone is not too different,'' she said. “A lot of people want to separate because you look like this or you look like that. For me, people are just people.''
She received an outpouring of congratulations on Facebook after her election.
One person told her she would be “talked about and looked at crazy,'' but urged her to “keep your head up.''
George T. Moore, vice president of the KSU National Alumni Association, embraced Martin's election.
“You can still maintain diversity without losing your ethnic heritage,'' said Moore, a 1967 KSU graduate.
Pictured above is Elisabeth Martin.