Twin Sisters Become Aggies Together, Seeking Success In STEM
First-year Aggies and twin sisters Ani and Malaya Mitchell don’t remember their first stay near Texas A&M University – they were only 18 months old at the time. It was 2005 and Hurricane Katrina had ravaged their hometown of New Orleans. Like many families, theirs evacuated to Texas, finding a temporary home in Bryan.
Seventeen years later, the Mitchell twins – bona fide celebrities back home – have returned to Bryan-College Station as undergraduates at Texas A&M. Ani is studying in the College of Engineering, and Malaya, who is studying biology in the College of Arts and Sciences, plans to become a surgeon.
Their early interest in STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) came naturally. But a unique program called STEM NOLA helped grow their knowledge and skills, opening a pathway to one of the nation’s leading research universities.
It all started with robots.
Growing up, robot kits had a permanent spot on both Ani and Malaya’s Christmas lists. Building the robots together awakened their interest in STEM, but for different disciplines.
For Ani, it was the engineering. “All hands-on things interested me, but building robots is one of my favorite things because you can build something new, you can tweak it, add new things or take some things away,” she said. Her high school senior project was an aquatic robot.
For Malaya, robots sparked an interest in the human body. “Problem solving is my main interest, and that’s why I want to be a surgeon. You’re presented with an injury or disease and you have to figure out a way to help that best fits the patient. So I enjoy tailoring my robots, modifying them, finding out how they work the best. And that’s how I look at it with patients – not that I’m going to be adding any arms. But I am looking at orthopedic surgery to see how we can make tweaks to find what’s best for the patient.”
The twins’ mother, Letisha Mitchell, said the girls were around five and attending a language immersion school, learning French, when she first noticed their academic prowess. “They were getting awards for oral fluency,” she said. “I started to become more vigilant and pay attention to what they were interested in. Robots were definitely at the top of the list.
“I’m a single parent,” she added, “but I will do anything for my girls, so I’d spend hours online bidding on these robot kits.”
Soon, Letisha discovered STEM NOLA, opening a new world for the Mitchell twins.
Underserved In STEM
Where Ani and Malaya grew up in New Orleans, there weren’t many opportunities to pursue careers in STEM, says Calvin Mackie. He founded the non-profit STEM NOLA in 2013 to bring those opportunities into underserved and low-income communities.
Mackie, a former engineering professor at Tulane University, holds a bachelor’s of mathematics from Morehouse College and a bachelor’s, master’s and Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from Georgia Tech. He said he was bothered by the lack of STEM outreach to low-income, low-resource communities.
“In these inner city communities, schools don’t pursue that kind of genius the way they pursue it in sports,” Mackie said. “You can find a lot of coaches, but not a lot of engineering professors.”
So he made it his life’s work: “I asked, ‘How can I create this mythical cradle-to-career pipeline? How do I put STEM in every child’s hand before the age of four?'”
The result – STEM NOLA – has engaged more than 100,000 students in hands-on, project-based learning.
Mackie said he recalls meeting the Mitchell twins when they came to their first STEM NOLA event. “They stared me down and I stared them down,” he joked. “They had on matching clothes; they’re twins so they’re hard to miss. They were engaged from day one.”
He said when it comes to STEM, exposure is key. “We can’t decide for them, we just put it in front of them and see what happens,” Mackie said. “We believe that STEM engagement has to be intentional and consistent.”
His staff of around 35 people worked with about 4,500 students this past summer alone, also involving leading STEM professionals and hundreds of college students as interns each year.
Mackie said he’s pleased to be partnering with Texas A&M. “I’ve always liked A&M’s diversity efforts,” he said.
STEM NOLA is endeavoring to scale across the country, he said: “Our hope is to have a million kids in STEM on Saturdays. Programs like ours are how A&M can find the best and brightest students in every community.”
The Road To A&M
When it came time to apply to college, the Mitchell twins had their choice – they had numerous scholarship offers from colleges in Louisiana and Texas totaling over a million dollars.
But when they were invited on a VIP tour of Texas A&M, all three Mitchells agree, that was it.
“What did it for me was the campus, especially the Zachry building,” Ani said. “I wanted to go to a school with a great community, and I believe Aggies are one of the strongest communities out there. It’s something I wanted to be a part of.”
Malaya was also drawn to the Aggie culture. “Coming from New Orleans, it’s a large community with a lot of tradition. I like A&M’s traditions because it feels like a piece of home,” she said, noting she likes how close-knit Aggies are, even after graduation.
Letisha said she was apprehensive at first to learn how large Texas A&M is. “It did make me nervous to know there are more than 70,000 students, but the more I thought about it, that’s exactly the family they need,” she said.
David Tofel, A&M’s director of recruitment, received the Mitchells during their initial campus visit and said it was a team effort to ensure the twins could discover everything the university has to offer.
“We worked with the Visitor Center, Admissions and the colleges and departments to make sure we put together the best campus experience possible not only for Ani and Malaya, but for their mother as well,” Tofel said. “It’s a big deal to send your kids to school in another state, so we wanted everybody in the family to be reassured.”
Tofel said he hopes the university continues to enroll high academic achieving students through STEM NOLA and the Posse Foundation, which has partnered with Texas A&M since 2012. “Our university is one their students want to attend, and that’s a big honor,” he said.
Representation in STEM
Both Ani and Malaya noted the importance of inspiring other women and girls to pursue STEM despite underrepresentation in those fields. “It pushes me to do great things as an engineer, to show young women and girls – especially young Black women – that it is possible to become an engineer, no matter the statistics or the barriers,” she said. “If I can do it, you can do it too.”
Malaya agreed, saying, “I think it’s really important to have examples because I didn’t. I was exposed mostly to male doctors, so seeing a female doctor is inspiring. Also some female patients prefer women doctors.”
As Malaya explores the possibility of becoming a surgeon, Ani’s interest in engineering seems to be landing in the aeronautical field. “Space has always interested me so maybe I’ll be an astronaut one day, I’m still thinking about it.”
And the twins’ mom said even though she’s still a bit anxious about their distance from home, she knows they have each other.
“You can’t explain their bond, it’s not anything you can put into words,” she said. “They’ll never let each other falter and they know I’m always here for them. I’m still nervous, but you do as much as you can as a parent, then you let them go and just pray.”