Her friends call her May. But her full name is Mayeesa.
It means “walking with a proud swinging form.” When people mispronounce it – and they do – she corrects them, tells them it’s Arabic and gives them in a short conversation an education of who she is.
Education is key to Mayeesa Mitchell. She’s an HPU senior who has helped raise awareness on campus with one of the country’s thorniest issues: diversity and race.
Last year, she created and became president of HPU’s chapter of the National Association of Black Journalists.
In September, she created a daylong session on campus to help empower students. She called it HPU’s Next Step: Change Agent Retreat.
Now, she adds another accolade to her growing resume: Extraordinary Leader for the month of October.
“You don’t grow unless you’re challenged, and sometimes you have to challenge people,” Mitchell says. “But that comes from a place of love.”
Finding Common Ground
Since her freshman year, she has written for HPU’s student newspaper, the Campus Chronicle, and this fall, she started an internship with the Winston-Salem Chronicle, an acclaimed African-American newspaper.
After graduation, she wants to get a master’s degree in African-American studies and some day become a columnist because she believes the power of storytelling can help people become more open-minded.
“The idea of truth seeking is really important to me,” she says. “It’s the idea of educating people. You can’t form opinions without all the facts, and I want to help people have all the facts.”
That interest would seem natural for the daughter of two teachers, the oldest of four children.
She grew up plucking books from the family’s shelves and reading works by Richard Wright, Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou and reading biographies of Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois and Miss Jane Pittman.
That’s how it started for Mitchell in her hometown of Queens, New York. Her want for inclusiveness and cross-cultural awareness has only grown stronger since coming south three years ago to High Point University.
She remembers why.
“At early registration and Presidential Scholars weekend, students who looked just like me talked to me and said, ‘If you come here, we’ll take care of you,’” she says. “So, I owe it to them to give back to the next generation.”
Mitchell is a Media Fellow, Presidential Scholar, a peer mentor and an assistant resident director at Belk and Blessing residence halls. When alumni she knows come back to visit, they always ask her the same thing.
“Have you found that person to take under your wing?” she asks.
Doug Hall did that for her. He is an HPU career advisor who Mitchell sees as one of her mentors. For Hall, an African-American, Mitchell’s work around campus with other students is crucial.
“They may not have interactions with African-Americans back home, but when they see people who look like May and myself, they see we’re not just people on the news,” Hall says. “They see that we’re respected, and they see the positive things we’re doing. That’s what matters the most.”
Helping Others, Helping Herself
Mitchell started a student chapter of the NABJ because she wanted to bring to campus more diverse voices.
She started HPU’s Next Step because she wanted students to have conversations about race, religion and sexual orientation that could bring about more understanding.
She started working with Danielle Criss, one of her HPU classmates, because she wanted to help a few dozen students prepare for college at T. Wingate Andrews High, one of High Point’s two public high schools.
Mitchell works with them on their college essays and their SAT preparation.
Mitchell considers herself fortunate. HPU has afforded her opportunities to attend a diversity conference in San Diego, a diversity leadership conference in New Orleans, an NABJ conference in Minneapolis and a Society of Professional Journalists conference in Anaheim, California.
At Andrews, it’s different. Andrews is a school where nearly 80 percent of its students are teenagers of color and students who receive a free or reduced lunch.
So, Mitchell helps. She feels she has to. HPU has helped her realize that her work on and around campus embodies who she is.
A natural caretaker.
“I’ve never been one to complain and not do anything,” she says. “That’s my biggest pet peeve in the world. I wasn’t raised that way. I kept thinking, ‘Why won’t I see more people like me? Dang it, I’ve got to do something about that.’”