Irene Panagopoulos is a 1985 graduate of Mills College in Oakland, California. About 12 years ago, she was helping her daughter navigate the college selection process.
She applied to Mills, but did not attend. Not because she didn’t love it. She did.
“She told me that she wanted to have her own college and not her mom’s college,” Panagopoulos said.
Ultimately, her daughter chose Northeastern University, spent five memorable years on the Boston campus, participated in co-op, made lots of connections and earned her degree in 2015.
Fast-forward seven years and mother and daughter now do share the same school. In July, Mills College became Mills College at Northeastern University.
“What an amazing coincidence,” Panagopoulos said.
“I had an amazing experience at Mills and my daughter had an amazing experience at Northeastern,” she said. “Now our schools have come together.”
It’s that unique perspective—Mills graduate and mother of a Northeastern graduate—as well as her extensive business and higher education experience that made Panagopoulos a natural addition to Northeastern’s Board of Trustees.
Panagopoulos and Kathleen Sanborn, a 1983 Mills graduate, were recently voted onto the board, Northeastern’s governing body, which works with President Joseph E. Aoun and other senior leaders to shape the university’s strategic vision.
“All members of Northeastern’s Board of Trustees share a deep commitment to education and our institutional mission,” said Richard D’Amore, the board’s chair. “We are pleased to add Irene and Katie to this vibrant group of university leaders.”
Aoun described Panagopoulos and Sanborn as “remarkable leaders whose careers and perspectives enrich the vision we have for the future of Northeastern.”
“They are excited by our mission to educate students over a lifetime and solve the world’s more pressing issues through research and discovery,” Aoun said. “We welcome their wisdom and support as the newest members of our board.”
An art major at Mills, Panagopoulos lives in Athens, Greece, where she’s president of Magna Marine Inc., a commercial shipping company founded by her late father.
Sanborn lives in Northern California, where she is director of editorial services for OTR Global LLC, which provides marketplace-based, journalistic-style research for large institutional investors. She earned an English degree from Mills and a master’s in journalism from Northwestern.
Panagopoulos and Sanborn were both members of the Mills College Board of Trustees. Sanborn was the chair and is proud of her former board’s work helping bring Northeastern and Mills together.
“I’m excited to be able to continue this work on the Northeastern board,” Sanborn said.
Northeastern is the only university in the United States with comprehensive campuses on both coasts—campuses that include undergraduate and graduate learning, residential life, recreation and research.
Sanborn’s first impressions of the merged university have been very positive. In Northeastern trustees, she’s found a common aspiration to expand education to more students. Trustee David House, for example, shared with her his experience as the first in his family to attend college and his commitment to helping open that path for others.
“This is exactly in line with what the Mills trustees always embraced, as well,” Sanborn said. “I think that’s what strikes me most about this merger. Mills and Northeastern are two very different institutions, but we are driven by the same objectives and goals.”
English was Panagopoulos’ second language when she arrived at Mills as an international student, but she went on to become an honors student and campus leader, who earned the respect of her peers, staff and faculty. Upon graduation, the college created a new position for her—recent graduate trustee.
“That was a big honor for me,” Panagopoulos said. “In a way, Mills was my American dream.”
Several years later, Panagopoulos was nominated again to become a regular trustee.
“I never stopped being involved with Mills,” she said. “I loved Mills and all it had given me and I wanted to reciprocate.”
A generation ago, Sanborn also fell in love with the 135-acre campus. In fact, the smell of eucalyptus anywhere still brings her back to the homey living room of Olney Hall, where she lived for four years.
“I love our newly renovated Lisser Hall, which helped reinvigorate the campus center as a place to gather, relax and work,” Sanborn said. “I love Mills Hall and the presidential portraits, the creak of the wood floors, and the display of a part of Susan Mills’ teapot collection.
“I love Reinhardt Alumnae House and the green space that extends the glassed-in room, so like an Eichler vision. I even love Lake Aliso, which gamely continues to be a body of water despite having had its source interrupted by the construction of I-580 above it so many years ago.”
Sanborn joined Mills’ Board of Trustees in 2013, quickly learned of the college’s challenges and joined with others to reimagine its future.
“It was painful to ultimately recognize that Mills as an independent institution was unsustainable, but together we made the decision to allow Mills to transition, to evolve—as part of Northeastern University, including the Mills Institute,” Sanborn said.
“Mills has evolved and changed before, and this is a new era,” she said. “I am grateful to President Aoun and the Northeastern board for having the vision to see what Mills could offer in terms of ideology, culture and mission and to truly aspire to expand those qualities to the global university.”
At the farewell reception for former Mills College President Beth Hillman, Sanborn said she was encouraged by conversations she had with Mills faculty.
“I was struck by how optimistic they were and, frankly, how much more relaxed and happy they were compared with the months leading up to the decision and the merger,” Sanborn said. “It reinforced to me that we made the right decision. I know they are excited to have more students to teach and are impressed with the caliber of students and their desire to learn. I believe the merger has lifted everyone.”