Escapin’ with VanAken

President Troy VanAken, right, discusses his favorite music with the editorial board of The Leader at Nu Crepes in Elmhurst (Photo by Mia Harman)

After a trying 60 minutes of breaking and entering, rummaging frantically for stacks of cash, and ultimately getting caught, it became apparent to the editorial board of The Leader that President Troy VanAken is not cut out to rob a bank.

The failed heist was part of The Leader’s annual outing with the President, a long-standing tradition where the editorial board of The Leader takes the current president of Elmhurst College out for a day. Because VanAken is new, The Leader hoped to put his skills to the test by taking him to an Escape Room, a themed game in which participants are locked in a room for a set amount of time to solve puzzles to escape.

But the day did not start there; it all began a few hours earlier when The Leader met VanAken in his office, where nervous introductions were exchanged and VanAken joked he would have to “now watch what [he] said, because [he was] with the press.” From there, the group drove the President, who donned a button-down shirt and dress pants instead of his usual suit, to Nu Crepes in downtown Elmhurst for lunch.

While enjoying a cream soda and an egg, ham, and goat cheese breakfast crepe, VanAken discussed with The Leader his lengthy background in higher education, which began when he was an assistant mathematics professor at the University of Evansville in Indiana.

“I’m a numbers guy,” he explained as he spoke of his master’s and doctoral degrees in mathematics. After his teaching stint at Evansville, VanAken moved to Albion College in his home state of Michigan where he served as an athletic director and executive vice president, among other roles.

He then moved to Thiel College in Pennsylvania, where he served as president for seven years until he accepted his current position as President of EC and made one final move to Elmhurst with his wife Annette.

The couple has two children, Trey and Gabriella, who attend Hillsdale College, their par- ents’ alma mater. Trey is on the football team at Hillsdale, and despite the distance, VanAken makes it a point to attend as many of his son’s games as pos- sible.

“Sometimes it’s around a five-hour drive depending on where we are at the time, but it does not bother us. We’re used to it at this point,” he said.

In addition to being the father of a college athlete, VanAken has worked on various committees for the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). Coupled with his for- mer role as an athletic director, and before that a high school athletic coach, the experience makes VanAken well versed in the world of sports, a fact that made some EC students nervous when he was named the new president.

As The Leader reported last semester, those students’ hesitancy to fully endorse VanAken as president stemmed from the worry that he would place most of his focus on EC’s athletic programs, neglecting to pay attention to other programs.

VanAken attempted to debunk that theory when he explained to The Leader that he believes in a more distributed focus that values academia and other student involvement as heavily as athletics.

“While I love sports, I think there is a lot more to be focusing on,” he said. “Being involved in an activity is certainly a good thing, but being involved in more than one activity or program of study creates for a more wholesome student experience. By no means do I believe we should place too much energy on one thing.”

Still, VanAken said he is very excited to follow EC’s sports teams and their games this season. When The Leader informed him of the embarrassingly low attendance at athletic events at EC, he seemed visibly disappointed and said he hopes to see more students support BlueJay athletics this year because “it is important to have some school spirit.”

As the group grew more comfortable and the initial formality of the day began to fade,The Leader managed to get a glimpse of the man behind the suit. A self–proclaimed “cool dad,” VanAken said he listens to a lot of the same music his children listen to.

“People are always surprised when I tell them I listen to the music on the radio. But I really like Flo Rider and A-S-A-P Rocky,” he said, incorrectly referring to rappers Flo Rida and A$AP Rocky. The classic mispronunciation brought on snickers from The Leader, but VanAken did not seem to understand why they were laughing.

Despite butchering the names of his “favorite artists,” VanAken convinced The Leader that he may, in fact, be a “cool” President when discussing the plans for his inauguration week, which he said will include a student dance where alcohol may be served.

“The first part of the night will probably be a nice dinner to please the Board of Trustees, but they will likely leave by around 8 or 9 p.m.,” VanAken said. “We can then bring a DJ in and the dinner will turn into a dance and you [students] can stay until much later. I, myself, will probably leave sometime around midnight.”

As the reservation time for the Escape Room neared, the group left the restaurant to drive to Mastermind Escape Games in Schaumburg, but not before VanAken jokingly made his fear of riding in a car with The Leader known. He immediately clutched the grab-handles when he climbed into the car and did not let go of them for the entirety of the drive.

Upon their safe arrival, the group was greeted by the staff of the Escape Room, who outlined the rules of the game and explained the scenario. In the bank heist theme, The Leader and VanAken were to assume the roles of members of a crime syndicate attempting to rob a bank. The objective was to steal a minimum of $200,000 and find a way to escape without getting caught by the police, who would arrive at the bank in exactly one hour.

The group was led into the bank and left to piece together all the clues present in the room, which had a completion rate of only 23 percent. Puzzles ranged in difficulty from figuring out how to work the light switches to cracking seemingly impossible codes.

Due to his tall stature, VanAken took on the responsibility of entering codes and opening the safes highest up on the wall that no one else could reach. The system worked for a while, but as the puzzles became more difficult and the time on the clock began to run out, nerves started to run high and the atmosphere suddenly turned intense.

While The Leader’s editorial board was running around frantically, trying to crack the codes to unlock the safes, and yelling at each other across the room in frustration, VanAken stayed calm and collected through the chaos, occasionally offering suggestions and thinking through every proposed idea.

After giving up and starting over repeatedly for the last five minutes of the hour, the group figured out the answer to the next puzzle just as the time on the clock ran out, rendering them unsuccessful at robbing the bank.

“You guys are going away for a long time,” the staff member at the Escape Room told the group. Despite the loss, the group could not stop talking about the experience. Most enthusiastic seemed VanAken, who vowed to return with his administrative team to complete another Escape Room as he posed for a group photograph commemorating the experience with The Leader.

The day was scheduled to end once the Escape Room had been completed, but as thegroup took a selfie in the parking lot a few members of the editorial board suggested going out for ice cream, and VanAken endorsed the idea. The group then decided to take a trip to Kilwins in Elmhurst for one final adventure.

Once there, VanAken enjoyed two scoops of the sorbet flavored ‘Superman’ ice cream outside the old-fashioned confectionery while Leader assistant entertainment editor and Pokemon expert, Stefan Carlson, attempted to teach VanAken how to play Pokémon Go, a game VanAken said he was highly fascinated by.

“There are different levels of Pokemons?” VanAken asked Carlson, obviously unfamiliar with the workings of the virtual reality game. As Carlson told VanAken of the various training gyms and PokeStops on the EC campus, VanAken listened intently to the information with hopes of playing the game on campus.

After his Pokemon tutorial, The Leader dropped VanAken back off on the EC campus, where they finally parted ways after a long string of goodbyes and thank-yous.

“I really enjoyed spending this day with [The Leader] and getting to know [them],” VanAken said as he walked back to the President’s Office in Lehmann Hall. And while The Leader also enjoyed pushing VanAken out of his comfort zone that day, it sincerely hopes the President will have better luck at running the College than he did at robbing a bank.