Celeste Mendoza of Selma is one up on Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg.
Mendoza is a 2017 Harvard graduate, while Zuckerberg remains a Harvard dropout. OK, a billionaire dropout. He spoke and was awarded an honorary degree at the May graduation ceremony in which Mendoza received her degree in government. When your social network revolutionizes the world, you’re always welcome back at your would-be alma mater.
There’s nothing would-be or incomplete about Mendoza’s connection to America’s most prestigious university.
She embraced Harvard’s amazing opportunities (cultural exchange trips to Argentina, India and Thailand) and weathered its grueling academic challenges (“At first, I didn’t know what I didn’t know,” she says).
After four years, Mendoza emerged with what I’d call a sensible confidence.
Listen to her words: “A Harvard degree is not necessarily a measure of success though it is an accomplishment.”
Pretty good perspective for a 22-year-old.
I first met Mendoza when she was an eighth-grader at Abraham Lincoln Middle School. She and two classmates had won a prize in a History Day competition. I interviewed them for a newspaper story, a meat-and-otatoes article about good kids doing good things.
Something about Mendoza stood out. She possessed the poise and confidence (there’s that word again) that Harvard would test and nurture – sometimes at the same time.
The test came in her having to learn new academic skills that other Harvard students had already mastered in prep school.
The nurture came when she reached out to friends, tutors and professors for help, and she moved ahead with their assistance.
Mendoza didn’t spend much time comparing herself to the prep schoolers and others.
“I might have been catching up in some regards, but I couldn’t expect anything different,” she said. “It wasn’t a mark against me but a case of me making the most of the experience. I had to remember that Harvard saw potential in me.”
Before she was done, Mendoza was elected a leader of her “house” (Harvard doesn’t call them dorms), and she also wrote for The Harvard Crimson newspaper.
And, when former Vice President Joe Biden spoke at a graduation event in May, Mendoza sat on the stage – a recognition of her student leadership position.
Who helped her reach that point in her life?
One person was Nancy Taylor, her fourth-grade teacher at Selma’s Jackson Elementary School. Taylor recognized that 9-year– old Celeste was a gifted student and worked, in particular, on developing her writing. After Harvard graduation, Mendoza tracked down Taylor’s address and wrote to say “thank you.”
There also was Forest Castle, her English and journalism teacher at Selma High School, who acted as an adviser throughout her college years. Once Mendoza got to Harvard, she appreciated even more Castle’s efforts to show students the power of language and writing.
Finally, Mendoza’s parents, Steve and Sonya, encouraged her in everything she did growing up. Her father worked in the fields as a teenager, eventually becoming an electrical engineer with a master’s degree. Her mother cried with Mendoza when the acceptance letter from Harvard arrived.
Next stop: a middle-school classroom in the Boston area. She’ll teach math for two years through Teach for America, and then perhaps it’s on to law school.
Mendoza likes the idea of teaching because to her it’s direct social action that can influence lives. Idealistic? Maybe so. Challenging.
Without a doubt.
But Mendoza will make it work. She’s already proved she can.
Doug Hoagland is a freelance writer in Fresno. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.