Joshua 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.”
It’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.