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Contact: Mark McGowan, NIU Office of Public Affairs
August 26, 2008
DeKalb — Each spring, the CHANCE program at Northern Illinois University hosts a reception for its students who achieved a 2.5 grade point average or better in the fall semester.
Parents, grandparents, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins and even “street folks from the neighborhood” flock to the Carl Sandburg Auditorium to hear the names called and to watch the shining stars walk to the stage. They cheer. They weep. They glow with gratitude.
The Rev. Leroy Mitchell, director of CHANCE since June 16, 1980, loves it all.
“They put on Sunday clothes and come to the university for the day,” Mitchell says. “It’s always good to see their faces and to see the possibilities they see for their children.”
Mitchell officially retires Friday, although he has pledged to remain at CHANCE through the fall semester while a search for a new director takes place.
All are welcome to an open house celebration in his honor from 4 to 6 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 28, in the Duke Ellington Ballroom of the Holmes Student Center.
“You can’t replace Leroy Mitchell,” says Shevawn Eaton, director of NIU’s ACCESS program. “We can certainly fill the position with someone who will be competent and do a good job, but as far as the essence of what Leroy is – his warmth, his caring, his generosity of spirit – you can’t replace that. There’s only one.”
Mitchell came to NIU from Canisius College in Buffalo, N.Y., where he worked in a similar educational opportunity program.
He already knew about CHANCE and its unparalleled institutional funding and commitment. The simple opportunity to avoid the annual fight for federal dollars made it a dream job.
But the “phenomenal concept” drew him to DeKalb as well.
CHANCE recruits students, most of whom never thought they could come to college, and offers them the comprehensive support of counselors and tutors from Day One through Graduation Day. Many are the first in their families to pursue higher education.
All are tested during orientation or in the days just before school begins to assess their strengths and weaknesses in English, math, literacy and communication/speech. Most will take at least two of those fundamental classes; some take all four and some take none.
Professors who teach the four CHANCE fundamentals are “past outstanding,” Mitchell says. At his urging, some have presented at conferences.
The number of counselors has doubled from five to 10, and members of the CHANCE staff continue to try any idea put forth that might improve their services.
Of course, there are numerous success stories. Some CHANCE graduates are doctors, lawyers and even teacher. Mitchell chuckles at an e-mail from one alumna who politely declines an invitation to speak to new students because of her busy schedule: She’s working in Washington, D.C. and “making six figures.”
Another alum came to CHANCE after his priest pleaded with Mitchell.
“He told me, ‘He needs to get out of here or he’ll be dead in a year,’ ” Mitchell says. “And then he said, ‘He doesn’t know how smart he is.’ ”
That proved true. The student earned a bachelor’s degree in biology, remained here to complete master’s degrees in biology and history and then finished a doctorate in biology at the University of Illinois. He’s now a professor at Yale University.
“It really is gratifying. These kids come through so much in life, and they just grow here,” Mitchell says. “It really is a credit to the university. If we can educate these kids – these disadvantaged kids who come from the very bottom – then we can start to see some changes in society and culture. It’s past satisfying.”
Mitchell entered the world of educational opportunity at State University of New York-Buffalo. He was teaching junior high school when his alma mater offered him a job in financial aid for its new educational opportunity program.
Their stories reflected Mitchell’s memories.
“I identified with a lot of the young people,” he says. “I saw people trying to make a change in their situation, and wow, that was very exciting to me.”
Born in Mount Pleasant, N.Y., Mitchell became a part of the foster system. His foster parents, both of whom had third-grade educations, moved during the Great Depression years to White Plains, N.Y., from the South in search of a better way of life.
Mitchell, the next-to-youngest of the couple’s 12 foster children, was the only one adopted.
He’s carried on the good works of his parents: Mitchell and his wife, Veatrice, are parents of four. Three were adopted from the more than 50 foster children who’ve come through the Mitchell home.
The Mitchells also maintain a house of the Lord. They founded the New Hope Missionary Baptist Church – located at 1201 Twombly Road, it was DeKalb’s first African-American congregation – and Mitchell remains the pastor 21 years later. He’s managed to squeeze his pastoral duties into his lunch breaks.
Both jobs are a ministry, he says.
But after more than 40 years of 40-hour weeks, he’s ready to slow down and maybe travel. He’s also considering an offer to teach seminary courses as long as, he says with a laugh, that it doesn’t require 40 hours a week.
And, as Barack Obama makes his run for the White House, Mitchell says young African-Americans are dynamically “seeing the possibilities of what can come their way with education.”
“These kids are what I’ll miss most, watching their struggles to break out of cycles that are really not their fault – they just inherited them,” he says. “The most rewarding thing is when a young person says, ‘Thank you.’ They’re excited to be here, and we hope to keep them excited. It’s important they do well.”
NIU will miss Mitchell, Eaton says.
“This whole retirement has made me realize just what an incredible impact Leroy has had on so many people in the 28 years he’s been in DeKalb – as director of the CHANCE program, as a minister, as an adviser, as a friend,” she says. “Students have so many beautiful things to say about him and the influence he’s had on their lives.”
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