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Holly Mitchell grew up in Chelyan, West Virginia (population 950), where her father worked for Appalachian Power and her mother was a homemaker. Holly wanted to go to college, but she didn't see how. Her parents never had, and money was tight.
As a freshman in high school, Mitchell heard about a new science club and decided to check it out. At monthly meetings, she and her classmates in the Health Sciences and Technology Academy's (HSTA) first program learned about health, nutrition, and exercise. “We did cool science projects and had amazing cultural experiences,” says Mitchell. She'll never forget the club's trip to the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum in Baltimore, for instance, her first time that far from home without family.
“HSTA taught us to be accountable for our own success,” she says. “We learned to say `when I go to college,' not `if.'” And HSTA showed them what college was like. Mitchell spent two summers on the sprawling campus of West Virginia University (WVU) in what she calls “the big city of Morgantown,” taking classes, working in labs, talking with scientists and health-care professionals, and living in the dorms.
By the time she graduated from high school in 1998, the West Virginia legislature had passed a tuition waiver that enabled her to enroll at WVU. “It wasn't even scary,” she recalls. “I'd been there before; I knew my way around.”
Mitchell majored in psychology and earned a master's degree in public health. She felt so strongly about HSTA and its mission that she returned to Kanawha County to serve as an HSTA field-site coordinator, just a few miles from her childhood home, helping the younger brothers and sisters of her HSTA classmates find ways to achieve their own dreams. “I just treated them with respect and helped them find resources,” she says. “Sometimes I also brought snacks.”
She recently changed jobs, moving to the Center for Organ Recovery and Education, serving southern West Virginia, educating hospital staff and their communities about the importance and process of organ donation. “I would never have had the confidence and networking skills to do this if I had not been part of HSTA,” she says. “So many of the things I learned in HSTA have helped me in my professional and personal life.”