When Andrea Mitchell was a Penn undergraduate, she heard music playing from the third floor of Houston Hall and wandered into what was then WXPN’s studio.
Facing the music was a decision that put the 1967 College graduate on track for a well-known career in politics, television and news.
Now the NBC News Chief Foreign Affairs Correspondent, Mitchell started small. At WXPN, she had her own music program and produced newscasts.
In 1964 — while she was still an undergraduate at Penn — Mitchell covered the senate race for WXPN.
“That was my first taste of covering national politics,” Mitchell said. “And I fell in love with it.”
Mitchell’s experience at Penn, however, was very different from the undergraduate experience today.
“It was a completely different era,” she said. “It was before [women] were fully integrated.”
Mitchell, as a result, faced many rules that kept her out of careers that were male-dominated.
Although she found herself as a minority — “I was the only woman in management [at WXPN],” she recalls — Mitchell didn’t give up.
“All of us — all of my friends — were testing ourselves against the boundaries that restricted women in so many ways,” she said.
When she graduated, though, it wasn’t straight to a job at NBC.
“The opening that I took [at KYW Philadelphia News Station] was to be what they called a ‘copy boy’ — they’d never had a woman do that [and] I had to talk my way into it,” she said.
Mitchell wasn’t content as a ‘copy boy.’ She worked her way up to the police and education beats. During her time as a beat reporter, Mitchell dealt with historical and controversial moments, reporting on former Philadelphia mayor Richardson Dilworth and Frank Rizzo, who became Philadelphia mayor in 1972.
For the next presidential election, Mitchell went the national political conventions for KYW Radio, which gave her the opportunity to cover national politics again.
In 1978, Mitchell joined NBC, where she remains today. She has continued to cover campaigns, from President Jimmy Carter in 1976 to President Barack Obama in 2008 and in 2012.
In the nearly four decades that Mitchell has worked at NBC, she has seen how technology has changed reporting the news.
When she was reporting the Haiti earthquake, she got on a plane with Hillary Clinton but there was no room on the plane for her camera crew. Thanks to new technology, Mitchell used a small digital camera to report from Haiti.
“The immediacy of what we do now is just remarkable,” she said. “It’s one of the reasons that I love what I do so much — it changes and grows and expands every day.”
Due to the new speed of journalism, she needs to stay as current as possible.
Every morning, she pitches stories for her broadcast to run that night. She also makes decisions about her show, Andrea Mitchell Reports, which films in the afternoon. Then she works on the nightly news report.
“Often, we have to change directions because of breaking news or because of the president,” she said. “So we’re very flexible about switching gears.”
Moments of history
One of Mitchell’s most challenging interviewees was with Fidel Castro, whom she has interviewed several times in Havana.
Besides Castro, Mitchell has also matched wits with some of the brightest minds of the last 50 years.
“Margaret Thatcher when she was prime minister was always a tough interview [as well],” she added. “Especially live on the Today Show.”
Just as Mitchell challenged boundaries at Penn, she continues to challenge boundaries today.
Over the past decade, she has made frequent trips to the Middle East, and even to Afghanistan when the Taliban ruled.
“That was scary,” she added. “Especially as a woman.”
Despite the risks — or perhaps because of them — when Mitchell looks back on her career, it’s punctuated by historic highlights.
“I loved covering eight years of the Ronald Reagan White House because of all the historic changes,” she said. “I was there when he stood in front of the Berlin Wall.”
Mitchell was there when President Reagan famously said, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”
Even though she has been present for many moments in history, covering campaigns will always be Mitchell’s favorite.
For the upcoming election, she has been covering the debates, where she crossed paths with Penn and WXPN.
2005 College graduate Rosemary Connors is a reporter for NBC in Philadelphia who is covering the elections. Connors, who calls Mitchell a mentor, said, “She was certainly someone I had kept in my line of vision just as I started my career and in the past seven years that I’ve been … working as a reporter,” she said.
Mitchell has also served as a mentor for Catherine Chomiak, an associate producer at NBC news.
Chomiak, who graduated from the College in 2009, is grateful for Mitchell’s mentoring.
“I’ve learned and continue to learn so much from Andrea,” Chomiak said in an email. “She is one of the hardest working women in Washington and cares deeply about what she does.”
Connors met Mitchell when she was about to graduate. Mitchell was a great role model because she was a Penn graduate in addition to being successful in the field, Connors said.
“It helped [bring] me to where I am today,” Connors added.
According to Kimberly Junod, 2000 College graduate, mentoring is an important aspect of WXPN’s culture.
“Everyone’s really eager to share their knowledge at the station and they take really seriously that the station is affiliated with the University, that part of our mission is to teach and prepare” future generations, Junod said.
During this election, Mitchell hopes that Penn students will use resources, from The New York Times to the Colbert Report, to stay informed.
For Mitchell, it’s important to “develop your own sensibility and your own sense… Don’t get trapped in one side or another.”
For the past 48 years, Mitchell has been in the field reporting on history and asking the hard questions.
“I always loved history and biography,” she said. “And it’s what made it inevitable that I was going to be a journalist.”