The Boiling Point

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From Ethiopia to Princeton to Shalhevet, never what’s expected for donor relations and business office exec

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By Lucy Fried, Features Editor

One of Michelle Baxter’s life mottos is not to plan anything more than a year ahead.

“We make plans and God laughs,” Ms. Baxter said. “If you had asked me in college what I was going to be doing, I would have said I would be in the hospital, in the middle of Uganda, helping the babies.”  

Born in Monrovia, Liberia, Ms. Baxter’s life started out far from where it is now.  Liberia is a small country on the coast of West Africa with lots of rain, a place to which freed American slaves returned in 1816 and founded a country based on American principles. It became independent in 1847.

But she didn’t live there long — when she was 2, her parents moved to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where they lived until she was 16.  Ms. Baxter attended boarding school in England from the ages of 12 to 18, traveling home to her parents in Ethiopia and then New York three times a year.

Her American life began at age 16 when her parents’ United Nations jobs brought their family to New York City. Ms. Baxter’s father managed the telecommunications within the United Nations, and her mother was what Mrs. Baxter called a “desk officer,” managing logistics and finances for over a thousand peacekeepers in the United Nations.

With an office located closest to the theater on the first floor, many students may not know Ms. Baxter well, and she said that people probably think she is more serious than she is.

“I really do have to be focused,” she said. “But I think I’m a lot more fun and relaxed than people realize.”

A self proclaimed “foodie,” Ms. Baxter said that she loves trying new recipes, including many African dishes, such as jollof rice. Originating from the Wollof tribe, jollof is a tomato-based dish prepared with vegetables or chicken in a single pot. Ms. Baxter said it most closely compares to the American jambalaya.

“I found a jollof recipe recently that I’m dying to try,” she said. “It’s kind of like a staple, it’s like saying ‘as American as apple pie,’ you would say,  ‘as West African as jollof rice.’”  

Ms. Baxter’s careers have a diverse background as well, and she said that is what taught her about life’s unpredictability. Her careers have ranged from from factory production management to social media marketing to tutoring.  She has now worked as Shalhevet’s donor relations and business office executive for three years.

For her undergraduate education, Ms. Baxter attended Princeton University as a pre-medical student. She had her mind set on becoming a doctor, but instead found herself living in California and working for companies such as BabyGap and Black Sheep Social Media, and eventually starting her own business.

She surprised even herself by pursuing a career at Shalhevet.

“I never ever ever ever ever thought that I would be at a school, I really thought I was gonna be a doctor,” she said.

Ms. Baxter began working at Shalhevet with the intention of only staying for the summer, and then returning to a career in “the production world”.

She quickly gained success working for local media agency Black Sheep Social Media, but she stayed at Shalhevet because she found her job to be more meaningful than that of the Hollywood world.

“I grew their business by 33 percent,” Ms. Baxter said. “When my contract was finished with them, I had had enough of Hollywood people.”

Ms. Baxter described the Shalhevet culture to be a rewarding one.

“It’s really nice to be able to take all of the experience that I’ve had and be able to put it to good use and know that it’s for people’s future,” she said. “It’s a much better feeling than putting in 18 hours for Ariana Grande’s new video for no thanks whatsoever. If I put in 18 hours of my life and you guys get to graduate, it’s a completely different return of investment.”   

Ms. Baxter said that she has no idea where her life may lead in the future, and for now maintains a focus on the present.

“I’m always open to doing my very best no matter where I am,” she said. “I don’t think so far in the future that I’m day dreaming, What’s really important right now is the students making sure that we get through this year as successfully as possible.”

Ms. Baxter said that working in Hollywood caused her to become aware of her values, and the way she deserved to be treated in her work environments.

“I understand now what my mission statement is,” she said. “Things need to be in alignment with my personal ethos, my sense of who I am. There are some things I just refuse to do, there are some lines that I refuse to cross and that is okay.”

Regarding her former dream of becoming a doctor, Ms. Baxter said that this actually stemmed from her desire to make a positive impact.

“Helping people is probably like my meat and potatoes, and that’s probably what I liked about being a doctor,” she said. “I started to develop a flexibility around what it means to actually help people, it’s not just about being able to actually be in a hospital.”

She still refers to Africa as home, and although she has not traveled back since childhood, she wishes to go back soon.

“Home to me is Addis Ababa, but it’s the Addis Ababa I remember,” she said. “I miss home all the time – the people, the sights, sounds, and smells.”

“I miss how achingly beautiful it all is – from the sunrise to sunset and beyond. Most of all, I miss that sense of belonging and calm that comes from being at home.”

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From Ethiopia to Princeton to Shalhevet, never what’s expected for donor relations and business office exec