by Lorenzo Perez
Akil Mitchell did not know what to expect eight years ago when he arrived at the University of Virginia as one of six scholarship recruits to the men’s basketball team. The 6’8” forward from Charlotte, N.C., didn’t expect to spend his first year struggling to keep up with his veteran teammates. Nor did he expect to get so overwhelmed his first two years by the academic demands that he would begin thinking about transferring.
Mitchell credits history professor Claudrena Harold with helping him overcome his doubts.
“I had just finished a paper for her class, and she was kind of tearing it apart,” Mitchell said. “But at the end, she told me that she thought I was a great writer, and that I shouldn’t give up hope. She basically told me to hang in there and let me know she understood what I was going through.
“To know that someone else, not just a student but somebody that I admired understood me, … to know that they had hope I could make it, was really all I needed.”
Mitchell not only went on to graduate with a degree in sociology and a minor in global culture and commerce, he also was one of four sociology majors selected to do an internship his fourth year in UVA’s Office of the President. Mitchell’s final semester on Grounds also coincided with the UVA men’s basketball team’s first outright ACC regular-season title since 1981, and the second ACC tournament title in program history. Mitchell earned All-ACC third-team honors and All-ACC Defensive Team honors that season, as Virginia won 30 games for only the second time in school history.
This summer, Mitchell played with with the Panamanian National Team as it attempted to qualify for the FIBA World Championships next summer. Mitchell said he finally feels healthy after a year of rehabbing a lingering quadriceps injury and a torn calf muscle. A free agent, Mitchell hopes to catch on with an NBA team this fall.
In April, he joined fellow UVA alumnus and Philadelphia Eagles defensive lineman Chris Long back on Grounds for a panel discussion with Harold and UVA athletics director Carla Williams titled “Athletics and Race.”
Mitchell has been working to get an annual basketball camp up and running in Panama, as a part of a larger project to drive interest in the sport and in building a new arena in his birth country. Mitchell also has been working with Ryan Wright, his former roommate at UVA, on organizing a networking event next year for athletes interested in venture capital as an opportunity to connect with minority-owned startups.
“The liberal arts education that I received at UVA definitely equipped me to see the world differently,” Mitchell said. “I’ve really tried to broaden my horizons outside of what I can learn in a book or what I can learn in a classroom, and my liberal arts education gave me the perspective and prepared me to do that. I don’t think I would have had this perspective or ever considered returning to Panama or these ventures outside basketball without the educational experience I had at UVA. One of the most important things for me now is making learning a continual process. That’s such an important part of the UVA experience, and it’s really stuck with me.”