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homecoming_spotlight.jpgJoshua Mitchell '01 was not at all sure he would attend Northwestern. “I decided at the last minute,” he admits, explaining that as a Chicago native, he’d hoped to use college as a ticket to experience a new city. “I wanted to get as far away as possible,” he adds with a laugh. Vernesha Williams Montgomery '01, on the other hand, picked Northwestern to stay near home. “I wanted to be close to family,” she says. “I was lucky because there are so many great schools in the Chicago area.”


Joshua and Vernesha met during a pre-orientation program for students of color, when Vernesha recalls performing a talent show skit with Joshua. The pair became close friends.


Joshua intended to become a doctor, but though he did well in his pre-med classes, he didn’t feel excited or fulfilled by them. On a whim, he auditioned for the student production of Love! Valour! Compassion! and was cast in a principal role. The experience convinced him to switch to a performance studies major. Vernesha, who majored in human communication sciences and did pursue the pre-med track, had classes all over Evanston’s campus and remembers getting lost repeatedly her freshman year. “It was a good thing, though,” she’s quick to add. “I met a lot of people that way.”


homecoming_spotlight_3.2.jpgIt’s that outgoing positivity that served Vernesha well when she was nominated for homecoming queen in the fall of 2000. By that time, Vernesha was involved in a number of campus groups, including as president of gospel choir, a member of Delta Sigma Theta, and a health aide at the Foster-Walker Complex. Joshua was also highly engaged, serving as social chair and chaplain of Alpha Phi Alpha, a member of the Northwestern Community Ensemble, and president of the African American Theatre Ensemble. Still, when he also received a nomination, he dismissed his chances of winning. “I knew Vernesha would win,” Joshua says, “because everyone loved Vernesha. She knew so many people, and she’s so sincere, so genuine—her smile lights up rooms. But my nomination? I thought, yeah right.”


When winners were announced, Joshua couldn’t believe his ears. Both he and Vernesha best remember the breathless seconds after their election was announced, when their friends rushed them to the podium. Supporters, including alumni, were crying and jumping up and down. It was only after that they both realized what a big milestone they’d accomplished: There had only ever been one African American homecoming queen at Northwestern, and there had never before been a black homecoming couple. “It was a big deal for the alumni too,” Vernesha recalls. “I don’t think we realized it would be as huge as it was.” Mitchell agrees, saying, “I think the win encouraged freshmen and sophomores, who played a big role in the vote. Northwestern has strong communities, but there were also silos. Since we were involved in so many parts of campus life, we helped bridge the gap.”


Across fifteen years and hundreds of miles, Vernesha and Joshua remain friends. Vernesha found her calling as a primary care physician for underserved families in Danville, Illinois, and Joshua splits his time between New York City and Atlanta, Georgia. “Northwestern is the type of school that prepares you for anything,” Joshua says, and this is particularly true for his experiences in entertainment. He’s produced two albums, won roles in indie films and Off-Broadway, and founded his own production company.


Both friends plan to attend Reunion this fall. “I’m going to see faces I haven’t seen in years,” Vernesha says, her smile just as infectious as it was fifteen years ago.


Bob Nissen '71 will return to campus for his 45-year reunion this October.

Northwestern has changed a lot since Bob Nissen graduated in 1971—and, he says, he couldn’t be happier about it.



“The University has continued to get better and better [since I attended],” he says. “[It’s] led by a great president, the alumni are more engaged, the athletes much improved, and recent graduates are making a mark.”



That improvement has been obvious for a while to Nissen, the owner of Nissen Consulting Group, a consulting firm primarily supporting over the counter (OTC) drug companies. He points to Northwestern student groups: When he was Chair of the A&O board from 1970-71, Northwestern had fewer than 50 of them. That number has rocketed up to around 450 today.



“I also truly believe that the professors and administrators we’ve attracted throughout the years are first class, just like the student body,” he says. “And that makes a great University.”



Nissen grew up in Chicago, began high school in Atlanta, Georgia, and graduated from Lake Forest High School in Illinois. When applying for college, Northwestern was a no-brainer. His father was an alum, and his brother was already attending. But it wasn’t just family ties that made him apply, though his sister, two cousins, a nephew and niece, and two other family members would eventually attend as well. “Northwestern had the academic reputation, and the [Northwestern] people I’d met along the way have always impressed me,” he says.



As an undergraduate, he joined the Greek system, pledging Psi Upsilon. “The Greek system was relatively strong when I was there,” he says. “I was president of the fraternity, but I also was heavily involved with other student organizations, including Dolphin Show and Student Government. I had many great friends that I made throughout the university. The beauty was that the more you participated, the broader group of friends you made. And they have lasted for many years.”



After graduating from Northwestern, he received a master’s degree from Kellogg School of Management. He worked in the food and pharmaceutical industry in Chicago for 12 years before moving to New Jersey, where he’s been ever since.



Still, he loves coming back to campus for his class reunion—he hasn’t missed one since he graduated, and he never intends to. “It gives me that opportunity to connect with classmates that in some cases I haven’t seen for many years,” he says. “I’ve either been on the committee or chair for every reunion since I graduated. They’ve all been great events. The 40th was spectacular; we had a huge turnout. Everyone really enjoyed it.”



He tries to return to campus at least once a year—“usually for Homecoming”—and gives to Northwestern annually at a leadership level. “The reputation that the University has affects us as alumni as much as it affects us as undergraduate and grad students,” he says. “Clearly financial contributions help attract the best students, build the best facilities, help set up alternate campuses throughout the world, help the sports program, help many things. I’m a true believer that annual donations are important to the continued success of Northwestern.”



Beyond giving, he spends his spare time serving on the New Jersey admissions council and interviewing prospective students. As part of that interview process, he always shares one decision he made that he has never regretted.



“When I’m interviewing students today, I tell them, there are a lot of decisions you make in your life and you might say ‘I should have done this or that,’” he says. “If I did it 100 times again, I would always want to go to Northwestern.”



Reunion Weekend 2016 takes place October 20-23, 2016. Register now for Reunion Weekend 2016 events at

For more than 80 years, the Northwestern Alumni Association (NAA) has carried on the tradition of honoring alumni whose achievements in life, work, and service exemplify the ideals of the University.

The NAA has announced enhancements to its annual alumni awards program beginning in 2017. The NAA will bestow one award—the Northwestern Alumni Medal—to up to four recipients each year.

“The award showcases what our remarkable alumni accomplish when they take a Northwestern direction,” says NAA President Kathryn Mlsna.

The Northwestern Alumni Medal honors graduates whose impact has transformed science, communication, education, public policy, the arts, innovation, design, and/or global issues. It recognizes superior professional distinction and/or exemplary volunteer service to society, along with an outstanding record of service and support to the University.

Northwestern Alumni Medal recipients will be announced in spring 2017 and receive their medals during Homecoming and Reunion Weekend.

“The NAA relies on recommendations from alumni, parents, and friends to identify potential recipients for these honors,” says Mlsna. Alumni should visit the NAA’s website to read the eligibility criteria and nominate a deserving member of the Northwestern community. Nominations are due by November 30.


NAA President Mark Ledogar (Photo by Jasmin Shah)

Mark Ledogar begins his two-year term as president of the Northwestern Alumni Association in September. If there’s one message he wants to get across to his fellow alumni as he prepares to lead the NAA, it’s this: Northwestern is for life. Northwestern has much to offer its alumni, and they have much to offer Northwestern.

“The mission of the NAA is to encourage and enable a lifelong Northwestern connection that is made possible when the University remains relevant to alumni,” says Ledogar, a 1989 graduate of the School of Communication. “The NAA meets alumni at two points: where they are geographically and where they are in life. There are no boundaries to the Northwestern connection.”

Ledogar has known that connection since high school, when one of his uncles urged him to take a look at the University. After visiting the Evanston campus, Ledogar submitted an early-decision application without applying to any other schools.

“Looking back, I’d have it no other way,” says Ledogar, who grew up in the Chicago suburb of Orland Park. “I was destined to be here. Northwestern was the right fit, and it was a great experience that continues today. It expanded my horizons and allowed me to see well beyond myself into a world that was much broader than I realized at the time.”

Ledogar majored in radio/TV/film, worked as a community assistant and in other supervisory roles at several residence halls, and helped plan and produce events including Dance Marathon, the Waa-Mu Show and the Homecoming parade.

After graduating, Ledogar briefly pursued a career in television production. But he soon realized he missed producing live events as he had done at Northwestern, so he decided to make a career change just a few months after earning his degree.

“I looked back at my Northwestern experience outside the classroom and realized that I loved live events — and I haven’t turned back,” says Ledogar. Today, he’s president of One Smooth Stone, an event and communication agency based in Downers Grove, Ill.

Ledogar’s history of volunteering at Northwestern stretches back to the summer after he graduated, when David Zarefsky ’68, ’69 MA/MS, ’74 PhD, then dean of the School of Communication, asked him to serve on the school’s alumni advisory board.

“I’ve been helping out wherever I can ever since, and it’s all because I was asked to participate,” says Ledogar, who has served on the NAA’s Board of Directors and is a member of the University’s Board of Trustees.

Laura Wayland, the NAA’s executive director, says Ledogar’s legacy of involvement with Northwestern makes him the natural choice to succeed outgoing NAA president Kathryn Kimura Mlsna ’74, ’77 JD, a University trustee.

“Mark’s years of volunteering at Northwestern give him a unique perspective on how to help the NAA meet the needs of all alumni,” Wayland says. “He has a real passion for Northwestern that makes him a great ambassador for the University.”

Ledogar says that the NAA team, including the seven other alumni who will begin serving terms as NAA officers in September, plans to build on the organization’s strengths, including its wide range of educational, mentoring and career development programs for alumni of all ages.

Ledogar also hopes Northwestern alumni will promote the University by telling others how their Northwestern experience has shaped their lives.

“I encourage my fellow alums to ‘wear it,’ and I’m not just talking about wearing purple or wearing a Northwestern sweatshirt,” Ledogar says. “I’m talking about recognizing that Northwestern is part of your story and letting others know about your Northwestern connection.”

Read more at Northwestern Magazine

Read more about the incoming NAA Board of Directors