DeKALB – Seventeen-year-old Nina Mitchell of DeKalb has always been competitive with her brothers, 21-year-old Robert and 20-year-old Michael.
All three siblings were top 10 of their graduating class at DeKalb High School: Robert was sixth and Michael was seventh.
Nina Mitchell, a 2020 graduate of DeKalb High School, is the first Black female valedictorian in the school’s 159-year history. She received a 4.549 GPA and was the top of her class.
“My brothers push me to be a better athlete, a better student, and I’ve always been trying to outdo them,” Mitchell said. “My brothers, as well as my parents, are my role models.”
Academic success runs in the family: Mitchell’s maternal grandmother was the valedictorian of Walker High School in Coldwater, Mississippi, where she graduated at 16 years old.
Mitchell attended Cornerstone Christian Academy in Sycamore for kindergarten through eighth grades, where she was her class’ valedictorian. She also won four spelling bees and a geography bee and competed in regionals for both.
During high school, Mitchell was president of the National Honor Society, president of Key Club, a member of the Principal’s Advisory Board, a founding member of both the Peer Mediation Program and Spanish Honor Society and she participated in volleyball and track and field.
In the community, Nina was elected as the first Black chair of Youth Engaged in Philanthropy, a youth-led group under the DeKalb County Community Foundation. She was also a member of the Illinois YMCA Youth and Government Program, a member of the Youth Advisory Council for the 70th Illinois District and was a DeKalb County election judge. She performed more than 150 hours of community outreach for numerous organizations.
Mitchell said that her love of community involvement began after taking a class field trip to Feed My Starving Children in fourth grade, where she helped pack food to be distributed to children in need around the world.
“This experience, along with follow-up discussions with my parents and teachers, taught me the importance and value of service to others,” she said. “My parents always instilled in [my brothers and me] the importance of academic excellence, working hard to achieve our goals and giving back to the community.”
Mitchell’s parents met as undergraduates at Northern Illinois University. Her father Darren is the deputy chief of police at NIU and her mother Melody is the director of alumni events and public relations at NIU’s College of Law.
Darren Mitchell said his daughter sacrificed a lot, including social time with her friends. Some nights, she stayed up studying at her desk until 1 a.m.
“She’s always been a hard-working student and a veracious reader,” he said. “She’s always loved reading. [She and her brothers] didn’t grow up with video games, but they had books, Scrabble, puzzles and Legos.”
Darren Mitchell said he is “truly amazed and humbled” that Nina was her class’ valedictorian, “which is such an honor and recognition of her hard work.” However, he said he is most proud of his daughter’s positive influence.
“She is a compassionate, gentle soul, generous, kind-hearted and a good human being,” Darren Mitchell said. “She’s so much like her mother and grandmother in that way. She gets her sense of determination, analytical mind and no-nonsense, pragmatic approach to life from me.”
Mom Melody Mitchell said that as parents, they “couldn’t be more proud of their daughter.”
“We love and support her and are very, very proud of all of her hard work,” she said.
Mitchell’s parents aren’t the only ones to sing her praises. She was voted class president all four years of high school and was voted the 2019 Homecoming Queen.
James Horne, principal of DeKalb High School, described Mitchell as “dedicated and very driven.”
“She’s highly involved and a well-rounded student,” he said. “It’s not just her academic attributes, she’s a leader. She’s involved with extra-curriculars and in the community. As a student, it’s important to push yourself to be your best. Nina found things that she was passionate about, interested in and challenged herself in that area.”
Noah Nordbrock, the YEP staff advisor, describes Mitchell as “outstanding, a stand-out student, just fantastic.” Mitchell has been involved with YEP for four years and has been the chair of the executive committee for two years.
“What an honor for her to be named valedictorian, but it does not surprise me at all,” Nordbrock said. “She knows what she wants to do in life and is very focused on the next steps of her future. That speaks volumes of her character.”
Although Nina was accepted to Harvard and Stanford, she ultimately chose to follow in her brothers’ footsteps and attend the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign where she was named a Stamps Scholar, receiving the university’s most prestigious academic scholarship.
Mitchell will attend the University of Illinois in the fall on a full ride scholarship, where she will major in business management and minor in political science. After receiving her undergraduate degree, she plans to attend Harvard Law School to become an attorney.
After all of her hard work in high school, Mitchell hasn’t been slacking over the summer. She has been taking a Microsoft Excel and business calculus at Kishwaukee College.
“It’s so important to get good grades and get involved, not only at school, but also in your community,” Nina Mitchell said. “If you work hard to accomplish your goals with dedication, you will get there, but it is no easy feat. I had tremendous teachers at Cornerstone and DHS. I’ve had incredible opportunities. DeKalb has definitely shaped me. I didn’t get here alone. My brothers, parents, family and friends and the community supported me along the way.”