Sarah Nicole Mitchell graduated Friday.
She leaves HPU with two degrees – one in political science, the second in international relations. She graduated a semester early, and next month, she’ll become a graduate student at George Washington University and pursue a masters’ degree in political management with a concentration in electoral politics.
It’s something she already knows well. As her college advisor sees it, Mitchell is already a “40-year-old political operative in a 21-year-old body.”
Beyond her achievements as a Presidential Scholar and membership in three honor societies, she is president of HPU’s College Democrats, HPU’s Organizing Fellow for the Campus Vote Project and a veteran of two high-profile political campaigns.
That includes working for nearly seven months as a volunteer and later a field organizer in Florida for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 Presidential campaign.
Mitchell is now HPU’s Extraordinary Leader for the month of December.
Her undergraduate work earned her that distinction. But to understand how her interest in politics began, go back to an ice rink where three little girls who could barely speak any English cling to a wall.
That’s where it all began.
The Gravity of a Chance Encounter
It was middle school when Mitchell got back into skating. She joined Empire Edge, a synchronized skating team, and they practiced at a local high school rink.
Mitchell grew up Mechanicville, New York, population 5,195. Mechanicville, New York’s smallest city, covers less than one square mile. In that tiny city 30 minutes north of Albany, the state’s capital, Mitchell met three girls that changed her life.
Twin sisters, Hoot-Tu and Hoot-Si, and their friend, Ni-Lar, were no more than 8. They came to the public skating session at the local high school, and 30 minutes before Empire Edge began practice, Mitchell helped the three girls learn how to skate.
Mitchell didn’t stop there.
She became enamored with the little girls. She helped them with their homework and their English. In doing so, she got to know their story.
The girls’ families fled southeast Myanmar to escape ethnic and religious persecution. They landed in refugee camps in Thailand and came to upstate New York, with the help of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants.
That chance encounter opened Mitchell’s eyes to the rest of the world.
Mitchell began teaching English at the local literacy center and helped refugees adjust to their new life in America.
She then went on a 10-day mission trip to Nicaragua with the New York non-profit, North Country Mission of Hope. She distributed food, built playgrounds, painted orphanages and worked at a center for abandoned children with
She went there because of Sister Debbie Blow, a Catholic nun. Sister Debbie co-founded North Country Mission of Hope, and when she talked to students at Mitchell’s high school, she said: “You’re the lucky ones. Why can’t you do more?”
With that question ringing in her ears, Mitchell came to HPU.
HPU: A Place Where Mitchell Grew
When time came for college, Mitchell searched for a university that focused on character and professional development. From that search, Mitchell found HPU.
When she came to visit, she felt HPU was different. Dr. Martin Kifer, chair of HPU’s political science department, talked to her for an hour. Then, while walking into HPU’s Hayworth Fine Arts Center, she looked up.
She spotted the verse from Luke 12:48: “To whom much is given, much is required.”
She knew then that HPU would help her become what she wanted to be – a young woman intent on getting involved to make her world a better place.
As an HPU freshman, she went to a debate at the Wanek Center wearing a Hillary Clinton sticker. An upperclassman, a Clinton supporter, saw it and recruited her to work in Clinton’s office in nearby Greensboro.
She knocked on doors, made phone calls and handed out fliers. Then, in an off-handed comment, she told the local organizer, “You should make me your intern.”
A few weeks later, Mitchell got a phone call from the organizer.
“I’m going to be in Florida,” he said. “Can you do that?”
“They Care About Me”
Mitchell went. But she knew she would have to take a semester off to work in Florida through election night in November. With HPU,
she didn’t even know if it was doable.
Kifer and her advisor, Dr. Mark Setzler, told her it was.
“It was a deviation from what we would normally do, but this was a once-in-lifetime opportunity,” says Setzler, a political science professor and director of HPU’s international relation majors. “It fits with exactly what she wanted to do here.”
Mitchell received an internship credit, and Kifer and Setzler turned her work with the Florida Democratic Party into an independent study.
With that academic peace of mind, Mitchell started as an Organizing Fellow. Following her second trip to Nicaragua with the North Country Mission of Hope, she came back and was promoted to field organizer in Jacksonville, Florida.
She worked with five organizing fellows and hundreds of volunteers. By the campaign’s end, her team made more than 27,000 recruitment calls, knocked on almost 7,000 doors, made more than 22,000 voter contact calls and registered more than 1,500 new voters.
A year later, she spent two months as a get-out-the-vote lead organizer in Democrat Ralph Northam’s primary campaign for governor in Virginia.
So, what did she learn?
“Not to take no for an answer and engage with purpose and organize with heart every day,” she says. “I learned I had the ability to do this.”
And what role did HPU play in all that?
“Huge,” she says. “At a large university, students with ambition can be overlooked, but at High Point, my professors know me, and they care about me. They care about what I want to do, and they support that.”
Mitchell’s Next Step
This fall, outside The Café in the Slane Student Center, beside boxes of doughnuts, Mitchell yelled at almost every student she saw.
“Have you registered to vote?”
She called it “Donuts for Democracy.”
She did the same thing with pizza and ice cream. This time, she stood upstairs from The Cafe on the track at the Slane Student Center. She called it “Red, White and You.”
She and two other students she worked with — freshman Dalton Lucas and junior Abby Knudson — registered nearly 500 HPU students to vote.
College comfort food.
For Mitchell, that was a winning combination.
“Students are often intimidated by the process,” she says. “But there were three of us on campus they could go to if they had any questions about voting, and I felt we could see a change on campus. More students were talking about issues. We were making a difference.”
A few days before her graduation, Mitchell displayed her purple graduation tickets like a winning hand in a card game. The tickets were for her parents — James, a medical supply salesman; and Dawna, a college secretary.
They were flying down from upstate New York to attend the big event. Mitchell’s parents had never attended college. Now, they were going to see their only child graduate from college with honors.
For Mitchell, her graduation and how quickly time passed for her at HPU is, as she says, “the most surreal thing.”
“I’ve had so many opportunities here at High Point,” she says, “I wouldn’t change anything.”
Even yelling near boxes of doughnuts?
“No,” she says, laughing. “I’ll keep doing that.”