Paying It Forward
Today, nearly 40 percent of California’s residents — and four in 10 college undergraduates in the state — are Latinx. However, they still have the lowest proportion of college degree earners. So how can colleges ensure this segment’s educational success?
Answering this question for UC Davis is now a full-time job for Lina Mendez, Ph.D. ’10, inaugural director of Hispanic Serving Institution Initiatives.
The university has a number of projects that aim to move the needle. This year, UC Davis became a member of the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities, which maintains its own list of Hispanic Serving Institutions that includes UC Davis. Students at member institutions can receive internships and scholarships through HACU programs.
The campus is striving for a Seal of Excelencia from Excelencia in Education. Given since 2019, the seal goes to those who demonstrate intentional impact and success serving Latinx students. And UC Davis continues to work to achieve the Hispanic Serving Institution designation from the Department of Education, which comes with additional funding for opportunities and resources.
Mendez started the position in October after 18 years with the university, most recently as founding associate director of the UC Davis Center for Chicanx and Latinx Academic Student Success. The new job, she said, aligned with her own career path.
“I’m not only a first-generation, but I’m the only one who graduated high school,” Mendez said. “I have two older brothers — one of them finished sixth grade, the other ninth grade. My mom only had a second-grade education. So education to my family was really important.”
Mendez, who grew up in Idaho, first attended Boise State University because it was close to home. A national student exchange program took her to New Mexico State University, and the difference, she said, was stark.
“I remember that feeling of walking through buildings and knowing how to pronounce their names, having food like green chile burritos,” she said. “I had professors that were Chicano/Latino — and not just one or two. I loved it.”
Mendez went on to earn her master’s degree in language and literacy from Harvard University, before coming to UC Davis for her doctoral work in educational policy and school organization.
In 2018, Mendez served on a task force charged with making recommendations to improve the success of “rising scholars,” those who experience a variety of educational disparities. A new task force was mobilized in 2020 for a second phase to implement recommendations in recruitment, retention, funding and more.
“[Success means] we will honor our own,” Mendez said. “We will recognize the brightness, the talent, the dedication, the commitment we have within our campus. We already have the cream of the crop.”