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Rebecca Mitchell

Rebecca Mitchell

U student named top-10 college woman

Truman Scholar Rebecca Mitchell honored by Glamour magazine

By Rick Moore

Oct. 10, 2006

It's midday on a Monday at The Cube in Coffman Union, and already Rebecca Mitchell is a bit media weary. She's about to sit down for her second interview of the day, with one more to follow later in the afternoon. And there are a couple of requests for photos to tend to.

She jokes that she didn't get this kind of attention when she was named a 2006 Harry S. Truman Scholar earlier this spring, even though that prestigious award is for 75 college juniors committed to careers in public service and carries with it a $30,000 scholarship.

The increased attention has come since Glamour magazine named Mitchell one of its top 10 college women in the nation for 2006. She's featured in the magazine's October issue in an article/pictorial titled "Brilliant, brave and under 25!"

Score one for the glossy, enduring appeal of Glamour. And chalk up another great honor for Mitchell, whose goals and accomplishments are certainly worthy of all the attention, however it might come. Glamour chose the 10 women based on campus and community involvement, excellence in the students' field of study, leadership experience and unique, inspiring goals.

Mitchell fares well in all of those departments. She's a College of Liberal Arts honors student majoring in biology, society and environment, and she plans to pursue a combined doctorate and master's degree in public health.

She's also been on the parliamentary debate team for the last three years; worked as a research assistant at the U's Stem Cell Institute in embryonic stem cell research; and has helped with the Medical School's Positive Youth Development Program, a study that tracks how the parent-child relationship affects the psychological and physical health of the child.

"You will meet few 21-year-olds who possess the compassion, intellectual abilities, and leadership qualities that Rebecca does," said Leonard Muyelele. "You meet even fewer who are already actively using these skills to better the lives of others every day and inspiring so many along the way to do the same."

But perhaps the most pivotal experience for Mitchell came during the summer of 2005, when she traveled to Kenya to do volunteer work and had dual placements at an orphanage and a local hospital. At the hospital she worked at an STI (sexually transmitted infection) clinic, strategically placed at the back of the building, where many women who had been monogamous would discover they had contracted HIV from their husbands. "It was very sad and very scary for me to witness," she says, and she realized "how few options women have if these things happen to them."

One day at the Kenyan Pistis Academy and Orphanage in Nakuru, she noticed that all of the female orphans were suspiciously absent. She soon discovered that "they were all laying on the ground behind the boys dorm being whipped by one of the male caretakers." After a pause, Mitchell says, "There's no way to describe it."

She stepped in to stop the beatings, and helped the orphanage to develop new discipline guidelines and policies for employees.

Mitchell had spent the previous spring semester studying in Italy and returned home for an organic chemistry class before heading to Kenya. Then it was back to the U in the fall to reconcile her "ordinary" college life with her recent extraordinary experiences.

"It was a rough first week," she says, noting that the hardest part was sitting through classes memorizing things she figured almost everyone would forget. "That, in juxtaposition to the things I'd seen and the changes that had taken place in the few weeks that I was in those communities."

Mitchell's experiences in Kenya made her realize that she wanted to go into the field of public health, with a focus on women's reproductive health. And, partly out of her dissatisfaction with the volunteer agency that arranged her placements in Kenya, she decided she wanted to make things easier and more efficient for future volunteers. So she founded the Student Project Africa Network (SPAN), a nonprofit organization that she runs with four other students serving on a volunteer executive board.

SPAN has already sent 43 volunteers to a variety of organizations in Africa, from schools and orphanages to public health and environmental programs. "We want to expand the number of organizations we're working with," says Mitchell, "and we want to reach additional volunteers."

"You will meet few 21-year-olds who possess the compassion, intellectual abilities, and leadership qualities that Rebecca does," said Leonard Muyelele, principal of the Pistis orphanage. "You meet even fewer who are already actively using these skills to better the lives of others every day and inspiring so many along the way to do the same."

Then there's the Glamour-ous life, which Mitchell got to experience during a three-day photo shoot in June and for three jam-packed days in September in New York City, where the women met with and heard from top female professionals. "The other time we spent being wined and dined. It celebrated the multifaceted woman," Mitchell says with a smile. "It was great." And she has newfound respect for Glamour magazine, which she believes is striving to empower women. "It's a woman's struggle to not be put in a box," she adds.

Mitchell was also the beneficiary of a major surprise at the awards luncheon, when she was named the winner of the L'Oreal Cosmetics "Beauty of Giving" award, given to the woman who exemplifies the most charitable spirit. That award carries a $2,500 prize that can be donated to a charity or used for a project of Mitchell's choosing. It also carried with it an obligation to give an impromptu speech in front of about 500 people.

Mitchell stepped up again. "I'm so glad I was in parliamentary [debate]," she says.

Mitchell is the third CLA student this decade who has been named a top 10 college woman by Glamour, joining Maya Babu (2004) and Jenny Carrier (2001).