Nontraditional student ready to cross commencement stage

Charity Mendoza is the daughter of a high school and junior high school dropout. She and four siblings were raised by their mother. Her life spent in poverty, Mendoza never received a high school diploma, and is now a single mother of six. Come December, she will describe herself in yet another way: Illinois State University alumna.

Convinced that she would never have the means to cross a commencement stage, Mendoza speaks with deep appreciation as she recounts how Illinois State gave her the support and opportunity to achieve a lifelong dream. An undergraduate degree always seemed out of reach to Mendoza, who walked a difficult path to obtain her educational goals.

As a child, Mendoza’s family could barely afford basic necessities. Hungry nights where dinner consisted of a tuna salad sandwich served by candlelight because electricity had been turned off were common. Mendoza always enjoyed school and wanted to go to college, but it seemed unrealistic as the money was not available.

Education was further pushed aside when she gave birth as a high school freshman to her first child, Shaquanna, and stopped going to school. A home tutor picked up assignments and administered tests. Mendoza passed her finals, managing to temporarily balance motherhood and classes.

“Your life can be what you want it to be. If you have the desire to go to college, the resources are available… State your passion and pursue it.”

She married and at the age of 16 gave birth to her second child, Devynn. Soon after she left the classroom to care for her children. “It broke my heart to drop out of high school, but I placed my family as a priority above my education,” Mendoza said. She became a full-time homemaker, during which time Adrien and Amber were born.

To relieve boredom she started checking out library textbooks. This was not enough to satisfy her thirst for knowledge, so she enrolled for her high school equivalency diploma. While working toward that goal she reconnected with her eighth grade teacher, Charlotte Cooney, who persuaded Mendoza to go to college after earning her GED in 1996. The encouragement served as inspiration.

“It opened a door for me,” Mendoza said. “Even the possibility is something that had not been communicated to me.”

Before she could pursue the college dream, Mendoza faced more life changes. She married her second husband in 1999, and their family grew to include Brock and Santana. Mendoza worked in a factory, fast food restaurants, and as an office manager to pay the bills. Unfulfilled, she began taking community college classes in 2001.

Academically things were going great, as she received straight As and came to life in the classroom. Financially things were not as good. Mendoza dropped out at midterms, no longer able to afford childcare.

“That really upset me,” she said. “It seemed like the door had shut in my face.”
She turned to the Army, knowing she would receive benefits and the opportunity to finish a degree. She completed all the steps to enlist, but needed a waiver because of her six dependents.

Mendoza worked on an assembly line at TI Automotive during the waiting period, which had not yet ended when terrorists attacked on 9/11. She consequently abandoned the idea of a military career.

Determined to be home for her children, Mendoza quit her second-shift job. Because she voluntarily left, there was no unemployment support and she was soon having trouble paying the bills.

She painted apartments for her landlord to pay rent and sold paintings to neighbors. The work led to a job as a faux finisher. Three months later she was unable to find a customer’s home and was fired.

“This was a tough time, but in the end it helped me in my journey,” Mendoza said. “I believe sometimes God will take your negative experience and provide a really big blessing for you.”

She counts Illinois State among those blessings, even though it was still years before she attended. Mendoza first went back to the community college. That door reopened while she was applying for unemployment. She learned of a program that helped pay for childcare and school expenses. Mendoza received assistance with both, and was able to complete her studies in microcomputer applications in 2005. She was the first in her extended family to complete an associate’s degree.

Mendoza secured a job at State Farm Insurance Companies. She realized she would not advance without furthering her education, which led her to Illinois State. She enrolled in 2007, and remembers vividly starting at the University as a nontraditional minority student. Her life experiences set her apart from most of her classmates, and yet she did not feel alienated. She thrived in the classroom, working closely with supportive faculty.

Staff members were equally ready and eager to help her find a way to juggle her multiple responsibilities as a mom, employee, and student. She felt encouragement across campus, which only instilled more determination to complete a degree in communication studies.

Now in her final semester, Mendoza reflects on her years at Illinois State with pride in herself and the institution. “My time at ISU has been very challenging, and I do love a challenge,” she said. “The challenge adds to my sense of accomplishment.”

Beyond the degree, Mendoza has learned about other cultures and the world around her while at Illinois State. She has developed relationships that have enriched her life. And she has a renewed optimism for tomorrow, as she eagerly plans to apply what she has learned to a field she loves. Her goal after graduation is to be a voice that can help change the world.

She is particularly eager to share her story with fellow Hispanics, who she noted often face obstacles similar to what she has overcome in completing her undergraduate degree. “I’m not the only one that’s had this experience,” Mendoza said, lamenting how many Hispanic teens struggle to complete high school.

The U.S. Department of Education reported in 2009 a drop-out rate of 21.4 percent among Hispanic high school students during 2007 alone. “Those kinds of statistics are appalling to me,” Mendoza said. She knows from personal experience that the students have a desire for an education and the ability to achieve. What they lack is the confidence that educational opportunities exist for them.

“I missed that when I was younger. I probably would have attended college a lot sooner if I had someone tell me it was possible,” Mendoza said. She plans to instill that hope in others, beginning with her own children, who now range in age from 19 to 10.

She keeps them involved with her homework, talks to them about what she is learning, and has had them join her in Illinois State classrooms. She does these things to let them experience the life of a college student.

Mendoza is also figuring out ways she can inspire others in the larger community. After graduation she anticipates working in the University’s Financial Aid or Admissions offices in a position that allows her to help underrepresented students find their way to Illinois State. She currently works in the Scholarship Resource Office.

She’s also active in the Bloomington-Normal community, mentoring underprivileged teens at a club that provides a place for them to do homework and access computers, which many do not have at home.

Mendoza openly shares her story and explains how they too can get to college, even helping students complete the application process. Her goal is to provide for others the positive influence she missed when younger, making certain today’s youth realize they are not stuck in a frustrating cycle of unfulfilled dreams. Her words are inspiring, and her accomplishments prove her message to be true.

“It’s not a fantasy. Your life can be what you want it to be,” Mendoza said. “If you have the desire to go to college, the resources are available. There is no excuse for not attending. State your passion and pursue it.”