This article is also available in print: Quaker Campus, Volume 19 – Issue 6, dated Nov. 17, 2021, on the Whittier College campus.
You might as well start calling her Doctor Yasmin Mendoza now, because once the fourth-year sets her sights on something, there is no doubt she will achieve it. After graduating a semester early this December, double Theater and English major Mendoza plans on pursuing her Doctorate in English to return to higher education as a professor. She recently finished applying to 15 colleges and universities, one of which will be lucky to see her continue on her path that began at Whittier College. Hey, with her future, it is never too early for Whittier to start laying claim to her hard work, determination, and empathy, which she has continuously demonstrated during her time at the College. With the many distinctions and achievements Mendoza has amassed during her college career, it is no surprise that so many people see success in her future.
Mendoza chose Whittier College after touring the College in Spring 2017. Her tour guide took her inside of Hoover, where she saw the English professors had decorated their doors and walls with articles and posters (Professor pAddy’s office still makes it easy to confuse the hall with a modern art museum). She also read the English Department newsletter, which had been posted on a bulletin board, and was instantly drawn to major. “Everything seemed so personalized to what the students wanted and needed at the time,” she said, adding that it was that personalization that bumped Whittier to the top of her list of potential colleges. Now, Mendoza serves as a student ambassador, hoping to give prospective students that same moment of recognition of a home that she found.
Being a humanities major means being faced with a lot of questions, which certainly increases anxiety of a future post-graduation. Mendoza says that it has been difficult to hear the typical ‘why are you wasting your money on a humanities degree?’ when she has worked three jobs throughout college and completed two fellowships in order to graduate debt-free. Mendoza received the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship, which allowed her to conduct research on banned and challenged literature, which she presented at the Undergraduate Research, Scholarship, and Creative Activity conference at Whittier College in Spring 2021 and other conferences. This topic is particularly important to her, as the banning and censorship of literature does not take the straight-forward paths the book burning scene in Footloose might have us believe, but is often more covert and tends to most heavily impact authors whose books who have characters of color or queer characters.
The Cauffman Fellowship allows students to take a Whittier College course and update its material by incorporating technology. Mendoza took this fellowship a step further; in addition to working with Professor of Acting and Directing Dr. Gil Gonzalez to incorporate technology in a course syllabus, she is also updating the texts to include primarily people of color and queer writers. The new syllabus is more representative of a diverse population, and the final project for THEA 272: Play Analysis and Criticism will have students use digital storytelling through a blog rather than a traditional paper, helping bring Whittier’s curriculum further into the twenty-first century. This work comes at a wonderful time, considering students are becoming bored with the presentation of classes offered here at WC (if you would like to read more, see “Made You Look!” on page 11).
Both of Mendoza’s parents were teachers, inspiring her passion for supporting people in education. During distance learning, her parents were teaching students over Zoom and put energy into learning different platforms to help their students engage digitally. Mendoza would help create the white board messages of encouragement for their students. Of course, academics was important to her, but, she said, “My parents made sure to teach me that the grade was not what mattered to them; it only mattered if I tried my best.”
Anyone who has seen Mendoza in her academic element knows that she is always trying her best. Mendoza is unafraid of asking questions, often sharing insightful observations that can even challenge professor’s perceptions of class materials. “[Mendoza] is absolutely wonderful; she is charismatic, hardworking, intellectually curious and, at the same time, intellectually humble,” Professor Jonathon Burton said about his advisee. He continued, “As a [first-year], she emerged as a discussion leader and a fearless volunteer in performance and experiential exercises.” Mendoza’s “best” led to her distinguishing herself early in her time at Whittier College and only growing since then.
While most people know Mendoza as an academic golden child, she has pursued hobbies and extracurricular activities outside of academics as well to provide balance in her life. Prior to college, she played basketball for 12 years. The competitive nature of team sports probably also contributed to Mendoza’s “best” usually being . . . the best. She has also recently taken up embroidery to spend time away from screens (something desperately needed after her year of extensive research on top of Zoom learning). For her sake if nothing else, it is important to recognize that she is still just a human with hopes, dreams, and fears. She still engages in self-care through therapy and recognizing boundaries with her responsibilities. As much as she has certainly set herself apart from the crowd with her achievements, that does not mean she has not faced roadblocks, anxiety, and doubts about her future.
Although Mendoza has finished the application process, she is still worried she will not get accepted into a Ph.D program. Always thinking ahead, she also has her fears for after she does (and she will) become a professor. “I feel like there is this stigma that academics are unapproachable and that is beacause it has been that way for a long time,” Mendoza says. While she hopes to be a part of changing this culture, her biggest fear is that she will not be able to create the space for people to approach her and be vulnerable. Given Mendoza’s honesty and vulnerability in her journey to becoming a professor, this seems unlikely.
In March 2021, Mendoza created an Instagram account with the username being an acronym standing for Yasmin’s Road to Community in Academia. Mendoza stated, in the caption of her first post, that she created this to “share my hiccups, successes, questions, and thoughts” among those who have shown her support. Creating community in academia is obviously a cause dear to Mendoza’s heart. It is no secret that people of color (particularly women of color) are sparse among college curriculum and faculty, but Mendoza has shown through her research and dedicated pursuit of her passions that she will be among those changing those statistics.
On her account, Mendoza shares updates on her journey to professorhood and is unafraid to be vulnerable in regards to the fears that arise. “I feel like, a lot of the time, people only hear horror stories or success stories, but nothing of the in-between,” said Mendoza. “I truly believe we need more love in academia, and, if I end up making it there, I want to be able to visit my Instagram, scroll back to the beginning, and remind myself how important forging genuine relationships are to foster lasting connections built on love and trust.”
Mendoza has a support network ranging from her family to her professors to her peers and to pretty much anyone she has touched in her life. She said her parents have always gone above and beyond in showing they care about her passion for education. “[Asking about my research] stands out to me because it’s one thing to ask about how my day at school went, but for them to express genuine interest in statistics of book-banning and ideological state apparatuses . . . I know for a fact that they only do that much out of love,” Mendoza shared.
However, it is safe to say that Mendoza gives that love and support right back. Fourth-year and co-President of English honor society Sigma Tau Delta Milah Afonin said, “[Mendoza]’s dedication and support as co-President of STD and as an English major not only serves as a relief to those who work with her, but also inspires me to be a better student. Without her, the Greenleaf Review could not have been what it was last year and our classes would not have had the same energy. She is one of the best.”
Mendoza is quick to extend a thank you to “the entire Senior Seminar class for being the best way to end my final semester, [Professor] Burton for advising me, my family for being amazing, and my best friends and boyfriend for always checking in on me and rooting for me.” However, she has always made it clear that she extends the same grace, support, and cheer for others, even when she is drawn thin between academics, research, and other responsibilities.
Mendoza is a golden child of Whittier College (and the future of academia) not because of a romanticization of her achievements, but because she is consistently down to earth, vulnerable, and realistic about her experiences. Mendoza is the embodiment of the honesty and support needed to foster a healthy, engaging, and dynamic environment in education. It is because of this (and her hard work) that her support system will continue to cheer her on as she continues on her path to changing education one thoughtful question after another.
Featured Image: Courtesy of Yasmin Mendoza