She’s half of a power couple with huge aspirations
Meet Veronica Meinhard, first lady of Ohio State, an expert in higher education philanthropy, a former All-American swimmer and now a committed Buckeye.
Veronica Meinhard pauses, reflecting on what she wants Ohio State alumni to know about her wife, President Kristina M. Johnson, and herself. Her authenticity comes through in her voice, her eyes, the way she leans forward.
“I want alumni to know we fully understand what an absolute privilege it is to be in the leadership position at this university. And with that comes a great sense of responsibility. Kristina and I are 100% committed,” she says. “The other message I want to send is that whether or not you have time right now to be involved, know that the table’s big and there’s always a chair for you.”
Meinhard’s 26 years in higher education philanthropy and administration give her a strong foundation to envision how she will serve Ohio State, particularly in achieving a 10-year goal to ensure undergraduates can pursue their degrees without going into debt. Her four years as an All-American swimmer at the University of Florida, where she earned a bachelor’s in sports management, helped her build grit and commitment to a team (and she’s on ours now). Her upbringing in Caracas, Venezuela, MBA studies in Madrid, Spain, and love of travel contribute to her dynamic view of the world.
Q How have you met alumni in the midst of a pandemic?A
We’ve been able to meet many alumni and friends in small, intimate gatherings. Instead of two hours with 150 people, it was two hours with six people. We could have in-depth conversations and really get to know stakeholders of the university, leaders in the community, some of our students, members of our team, our athletic coaches. So we feel very lucky.
We learned how proud people are of Ohio State, whether they’re alumni or friends. The passion is phenomenal. And as we look at Kristina’s tenure here in Columbus, I think that will be the secret sauce in everything we do, that sense of pride. When Buckeyes do something together, the sky’s the limit.
Q How are you involved in the debt-free initiative President Johnson announced this year?A
It’s really a personal topic for us. Kristina graduated $500 in debt, and I graduated debt-free. We both had full scholarships, and that gave us the freedom to choose the careers we wanted, go to graduate school, buy a house — whatever the next step was, unburdened by debt. Through this initiative, called Scarlet & Gray Advantage, we can give our students the opportunity to pursue whatever their next steps are.
That’s why I am applying my fundraising and strategy skills to developing this program in collaboration with the Advancement and Admissions teams. When we are able to achieve debt-free degrees at scale at Ohio State, we will be the first to do it, and that is a great Buckeye challenge to take on.
Q How are you going about the work?A
So, what’s the easiest way to wrap your arms around Buckeye Nation? The alumni association is a great place to start. We are focused in our communities and starting to work with alumni clubs and societies. We have scholarship champions, very generous individuals who have provided dollars to match those raised by alumni groups. The funds raised will be invested in students from those clubs’ areas or tied to societies because of their interests or areas of study.
The reception has been incredibly warm. When you have matching funds, and the money you raise is going to students in your own community, maybe your neighbor’s kid, there’s a lot of motivation. We’re working with a small number of clubs and societies to get started, and if that’s any indication of what’s to come, it’ll be a phenomenal grassroots effort. All Buckeyes who care about scholarships will be invited to be part of it.
It’s also going to require looking hard at ways to reduce education costs and leveraging every state and federal resource. And students and families will have skin in the game. So will partners who can provide internships and practicums so students can earn funds to go toward the financial package while they gain career experience.
This is not about going to college for free. It is about graduating without debt. Those are two very different things.
Q What do Buckeyes get when they give back?A
As you think about philanthropy and paying forward, it’s a very personal choice. What we hope is that, as students graduate debt-free and have the ability to pursue whatever is in store after graduation, and because maybe the road was less bumpy, perhaps they’ll think about providing that opportunity for others in the future.
There are millions of ways you can help Ohio State, you know? You can give your time, be a mentor, be a volunteer. You might work for one of those companies that is offering internships for students. The most important piece is that it brings our Buckeye family closer than it’s ever been, because we’re all in it for each other.
Q You’ve said President Johnson has been preparing her whole life for this role. What traits and experiences convince you of that?A
Kristina is really passionate about everything she does, and she’s a hard charger like nobody else. If there’s something that needs to be fixed, she’ll go after it. She’s caring, about as generous as they come. And I really appreciate her ability to empower people. She’ll bend over backwards to make sure people get the help or resources they need to move along in life. And the thing is, everybody sees the same things in her — she is consistent.
Her life experiences have prepared her to be successful in a situation like this. She grew up in a family with academically accomplished siblings; all athletes, too. She is number six of seven. Schools were just being integrated in Colorado when she was in high school; she had that experience. So busy house, lots going on, lots of competition, lots of role models in her family.
Her father was from the United States, her mother from Ireland. Because of the struggle of the Irish people, with hunger and poverty, her mom would pack boxes to send to family there. Kristina had firsthand exposure not just to understand when people are struggling, but to take action, to do something about it. She saw her parents do it. She did it herself. And so it’s just natural for her. And now, because of her heart and smarts, and the resources at her disposal, she is able to mobilize people in a way I’ve rarely seen done.
That background, plus her professional career in academia, the private sector and government, all those things bundled together make her a great president for Ohio State today.
Q What will realizing President Johnson’s overall vision mean for all Ohioans?A
We are passionate about the land-grant mission of Ohio State. We really see it as the university of all Ohioans. Kristina appreciates that a great deal. And that is the focus in how she conducts her work: how we can ensure Ohio State is a place where you belong — no matter where you’re from in Ohio, what your social background is, what your ethnicity is, what your lifestyle choices are. The biggest gift we can give Ohioans is a university that cares about all of its citizens, where all can find their voices and prepare for the future.
Q You were a four-time All-American swimmer at the University of Florida. What did swimming teach you?A
I graduated from a very small school in Caracas, Venezuela. The total class was 66 people. The University of Florida, when I enrolled, had an enrollment of about 45,000. Had it not been for the swim team, it would’ve been a bit much to make that transition from 66 to 45,000. There were 18 of us on the women’s team. It was a ready-made family, and that made it very easy to make the transition from Venezuela.
Swimming is the kind of sport that just tests your resolve every day. And every life lesson, every life skill, I learned with my head in chlorinated water. And I’ll tell you why. In swimming, you have to use your entire body — in water and breathing only occasionally. So it challenges you physically and emotionally, every way you can imagine. Also, you might have a terrible practice or a terrible swim, and guess what? You’re up again in 20 minutes or you’re swimming again in the afternoon. So it teaches you to show up even when you don’t want to. It teaches you to push through even when you’ve got low energy, when you don’t feel like it.
Q How did you and President Johnson meet?A
It was 2013. Our best friends — they’ve been together probably 15 years now — decided we should meet because of our background in higher education, our background in athletics. [Johnson played varsity field hockey at Stanford.] We met a little bit later in life. So by then you know what you like and what you don’t, so it doesn’t take a whole lot to make a decision and really learn about each other quickly. That’s how it was for Kris and me. We were married in 2016. Something that really brought us together is our love and appreciation for our families. We’re really lucky that our families get along. So now it’s one big, crazy family. I really love that about her — her commitment to her family.
Q What do you do for fun?A
We love to travel, love hanging out, preferably with our families and with good friends. Anything outdoors — long walks, bike rides, skiing, snowshoeing. Hitting the gym. Pretty simple really.
Q How do you like Columbus?A
I find it fascinating and vibrant. I think it’s fun. It’s great that it has a nice city feel, but also it has that nice college town touch because Ohio State has such a big footprint in the community. One thing I think is really special about Columbus is how proud people are of the city. This is home. And we feel like we’re part of the Buckeye community, the Columbus community. That was really refreshing, that it didn’t take long to feel that way. That’s a credit and a tribute to the people of Columbus and to Buckeyes.
You are the foundation of our tenacious family
President Kristina M. Johnson thanks alumni for being incredible Buckeye ambassadors. Read more about her memorable first year at The Ohio State University.