Eli may take plunge before millions

For students who were in Joshua Walker GRD ’06’s “America in the Middle East” section last spring, the last place they would have imagined him was on national television, dressed as Fred Astaire and dancing to “The Way You Look Tonight.”

But while his classmates were slaving away writing their dissertations or beginning new careers, Walker was doing just that. The international relations scholar devoted his summer to winning an all-expenses-paid wedding on a nationally televised reality show. NBC’s “Today Throws a Wedding” may not be the usual post-graduate placement for Yale students, but when the opportunity arose to be one of the seven contending couples on the show, Walker and his fiancee, Chauntee Schuler, went for it. And now, months before Walker is set to return to academia, the couple is still locked in a tight race for the prize.

The idea to apply for a spot on “Today Throws a Wedding” came from Schuler, an avid watcher of “The Today Show”. Although the couple originally planned to marry this past summer, they later decided to put off the wedding until next year when Schuler landed the role of Nala in the national tour of “The Lion King”. But the Oct. 6, 2006, wedding date offered by “The Today Show” seemed to offer a perfect compromise.

After researching and completing an extensive application, including 18 pages of questions and a two-minute video highlighting why they should be chosen for the show, Schuler and Walker overnighted their submission to NBC. Within 24 hours, “Today Show” producers contacted the couple to tell them that while all seven couples had already been selected, producers were so impressed by the video that the duo snagged a spot.

In previous years, “Today Throws a Wedding” consisted of a one-episode introduction to four couples, followed by the public voting for the pair they thought should win the wedding. But this year, to mark the seven-year anniversary of the show, seven couples are engaging in what Walker called a “‘Survivor’-meets-‘American Idol’” competition on the road to the wedding.

Each week on the Wednesday edition of “The Today Show”, which airs from 7 to 9 a.m., the pairs competed in various challenges — including dancing, singing, fashion and an obstacle course — to win immunity from dismissal in the week’s vote. The national audience is the ultimate arbiter, and the couple with the fewest votes will be eliminated from the race each week. As of now, three couples remain, and voting closes today to determine the final two pairs. The winners will be chosen on Sept. 20, and will have two weeks to plan their wedding.

The new format came as a shock to Walker, who said she assumed the process would follow that of previous competitions. During the second week of the competition, Schuler and Walker won immunity as a result of the dancing challenge. The two dressed up as Astaire and Ginger Rogers and wowed the crowd to the tune of “The Way You Look Tonight”.

Walker, who received his masters from the International Relations program this past May at Yale — where he focused on the Middle East and international security — said he plans to pursue a doctorate in politics and public policy at Princeton this fall. At Yale, Walker worked as a teaching assistant in two courses — John Gaddis’ “The Cold War” and “America in the Middle East, 1776 to 2006,” taught last semester by visiting professor Michael Oren. As a graduate student, Walker said, he rarely watched morning television, but he has since become a “Today Show” fan.

Oren, who is now living in Israel, said Walker is “every professor’s dream of a graduate student.”

“He’s dedicated, fascinated, responsible, and smart,” Oren said in an e-mail. “I felt both fortunate and privileged to have him as my TA. I fully expect him to shine at Princeton and beyond.”

Walker said he ranks teaching and interacting with undergraduates among his favorite and most rewarding experiences at Yale.

“They were able to pick up information that they’d never seen before so quickly,” he said. “[They] made complex connections and analysis with the ease of a seasoned expert that often made me wonder why they weren’t TAing the class instead of me.”

During his own undergraduate days at the University of Richmond, Walker met his future fiancee when she was visiting the hall of freshman boys in which Walker was a resident assistant. Walker recalls that after that first sighting, Schuler disappeared until he saw her on a poster for an upcoming school play. After both enlisted friends to find out more about the other, the two went on their first date and have been together for five and a half years since.

The couple became engaged last summer. Walker was running the Turkey desk at the U.S. State Department, and Schuler, now a stage actress and dancer, was heading to Japan to tour with “The Producers”. After telling Schuler that he was not going to be able to see her perform, Walker greeted the Foreign Minister of Turkey, set up the dignitary’s security detail, arranged meetings with Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, finished up a speech for a senior policy maker to deliver on the following day, and then hopped on a plane to Japan.

“I was getting calls all the way to Japan from the State Department control officer who was a bit irritated because they couldn’t reach me for some revisions the official wanted,” Walker said. “They had no idea that I was just a lowly graduate fellow who was on his way to Japan to execute one of the biggest decisions of his life. In the end, though, the foreign minister’s visit, speech and proposal all went off without a hitch, but I have to say the proposal was by the far the most important thing on my mind at that time.”

When he arrived in Japan, Walker surprised Schuler in the Japanese Imperial Gardens and proposed. Looking back, Walker, who grew up in Japan, said it was the perfect place to become engaged.

“Japan is part of who I am, theater and performing is part of who she is, and it’s important to start a relationship on the passions that drive both of us,” he said.

Although the show has been a largely positive experience, Walker said, he was surprised by the level of scrutiny to which his relationship has been subject as a result of the show.

“As students we tend to be more liberal, and the wider public may not always see things the way we do,” Walker said. “We’re an interracial couple from Virginia, and while we get some amazingly positive feedback — ‘you guys look great together,’ ‘you guys are our favorite couple,’ — we’ve also gotten some pretty nasty mail and comments.”

Walker said he was taken aback by the comments that came due to racial differences.

“I could not believe that people would insult me and write the nasty things they did simply because I happened to fall in love with someone who was a different color than I was,” Walker said. “It may sound cheesy, but love truly is color blind.”

This fall, Walker is starting a doctorate program at Princeton. While he is no longer at Yale, he said he is a “Yalie at heart,” and he hopes the community will support him.

Walker’s attachment to Yale led him to e-mail all of his former students when he learned of his position on the show and encouraged them to vote for him.

Andrew Steinberg ’08, who was a student in Walker’s “America in the Middle East” section, said he was more than happy to support Walker’s bid on the show because of Walker’s intelligence and helpfulness in section.

“I was shocked to get the e-mail, but I think it fits his personality, being fun and trying different things,” Steinberg said.

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