From strangers to roommates to friends to Phi Beta Kappa
What are the odds?
On April 27, 2010, Ashlea Vallangeon was initiated into IU’s Gamma Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa, a nice way to end her college career, but not all that exciting of a story. Except that Ashlea’s achievement was the final chapter not just of her own undergraduate career at IU, but that of her two roommates as well. We’ve all heard those “randomly assigned roommate” horror stories; this isn’t one of those. We’ve all heard those “two’s company but three’s a crowd” horror stories; this isn’t one of those either.
This is a story about three very different young women, brought together by fate, by luck, and by their own willingness to take a chance on the unknown. Kemmie Mitzell - outgoing, poised, and the oldest of the three - comes from a regular IU clan, 14 in all, going back three generations. Her grandparents, mother, aunts and cousins all graduated from IU, and another cousin will attend in the fall as a freshman. Her grandmother, Marty Tardy, is past president of the College’s alumni board and currently sits on the College’s Dean’s Advisory Board.
By contrast, petite and energetic Ashlea, a native of Chesterton, Ind., is a first-generation college student. Her sister attended IU a few years before she did, and she never thought about going anywhere else.
The third member of this remarkable trio, Hamilton, Ind., native Sara Miller, the quiet one, is somewhere in the middle: Her parents and two siblings all graduated from IU, and she is a lifelong IU basketball fan. IU was her first and only choice for college as well.
In the spring of 2007, Kemmie was in France on a study abroad program, undergoing the not-uncommon existential crisis that hits many a college junior: the light bulb goes on, the future seems clear, and the decision is made to change majors. French had become the dominating passion in her life, replacing her original determination to major in Biology and Theatre.
Busy with the turmoil that this had created in her mind and thousands of miles away from Bloomington, she decided to simplify things by living on campus for her senior year. On a whim, she opted to take potluck with roommates. Ashlea and Sara, both Psychology majors who did not know each other, each decided independently to do the same. As luck would have it, the three were assigned to a suite together in Willkie. “Initially we were all stepping on eggshells because we didn't really know each other at all. But I'd say within about two weeks, we were pals,” Kemmie says. And that’s when things got interesting. The three became so close that they vacationed together with Kemmie’s family in Florida; Kemmie’s grandparents proudly claim her but say they’d also be happy to adopt Ashlea and Sara.
“Living with Ashlea and Sara got me through the chaos that was the second half of my undergraduate years,” Kemmie says. Before long, she got word from the College of Arts and Sciences dean’s office that she had been elected to Phi Beta Kappa (colloquially known as PBK), the oldest and most prestigious academic honor society in the United States, open only to the very best students in arts and sciences disciplines. Admission is based strictly upon academic performance and is highly selective; approximately 10 percent of US colleges and universities have PBK chapters; among those elite institutions, only about 10 percent of the arts and sciences students are elected to PBK. Kemmie’s family members were delighted and traveled to Bloomington for the induction banquet.
“Kemmie was the first PBK in the family,” says her mom, Sallie Jo Mitzell, “My dad was beyond thrilled. He is such an academic at heart. I don't think I've ever seen him so proud as he was at that banquet.” Her father, IU alumnus Gene Tardy, is emeritus professor of Otolaryngology/Head and Neck Surgery at the University of Illinois Medical Center at Chicago.
The enthusiasm was infectious. Sara Miller says, “I was not very familiar with Phi Beta Kappa until Kemmie got elected. I saw how important it was to her and her family, so I researched it more and decided it was something I could strive for. When I got elected, it gave me a sense of pride and accomplishment.”
Then the pressure was on for Ashlea, the first-generation college student. “I first heard about Phi Beta Kappa my sophomore year, when Kemmie was elected into it,” Ashlea says. “She told me what it was and I realized how big of an honor it is to be a member. Then, the next year, Sara was elected! Kemmie's parents were so proud of both Kemmie and Sara, I was hoping that I would get into it the next year.”
As it happened, Kemmie and her mother were again visiting Florida this year when they got the big news – defying the odds of one in a hundred, the third of three roommates had been invited into PBK. “There was much hooting and hollering around our house!” says Sallie Jo. Kemmie accompanied Ashlea to the induction banquet this year.
Now that they have all graduated, the three are starting to go their separate ways. Kemmie is in her second year as a graduate student, pursuing a master’s degree in French at IU in Bloomington; Ashlea will attend the University of Indianapolis next fall to work on a master's in Clinical Mental Health Counseling; Sara is in graduate school at IUPUI in the Occupational Therapy program, with long-term plans to work in pediatrics or with brain injury patients. Ashlea and Sara plan to room together again next year.
“I couldn't have asked for better roommates,” Kemmie says. “They are wonderful people and they will go very far. And even though we'll all be in different places eventually, this is a friendship that will never die. It changed all of us. And it changed us for the better. Look where we all ended up!”