SOLES Graduate Spotlight: Ben Mendoza '15 (MA), Higher Education Leadership Studies

Ben Mendoza
begin quoteOverall, leadership and Changemaking were my two biggest lessons from USD. Theyre still having an impact today.

Tell us about your degree program and why you chose SOLES.

I was working at a community college in Seattle, where I was working with administrators as an executive assistant. It wasn’t exactly what I wanted to do when I started working in higher education; my passion has always been drawn toward working directly with students. I knew that in order to do that, I had to get my master’s degree. My supervisor at the time was very supportive and agreed that pursuing a master’s program seemed right.

I researched various programs and USD’s Master’s in Higher Education Leadership Studies definitely stuck out to me, for a few reasons. The first was the specific focus on leadership in higher education; that leadership component of it really attracted me to it. Looking at other programs—yes, they focused on the foundations of student affairs in higher ed—but for SOLES, the leadership piece really got me. The second thing was the staff and faculty that I met when I visited campus. I met Dr. Cheryl Getz (who is a great person to know) and I had lunch with a PhD student (a close friend of mine to this day) who talked to me about her experience with the program. It was that community atmosphere that really drew me in. The third reason was the international component. In undergrad, I never studied abroad or really had any international experiences, so for me I loved having the international component as a requirement because it was something I always really wanted to explore. The final reason I selected SOLES was my need to experience education and an environment outside of Washington state. I’d lived there my entire life and I was really craving something different, while still staying on the west coast.

Who were your favorite professors and leaders during your time at USD?

Dr. Evelyn Kirkley had a huge impact on me while I was at USD. She was one of the first people that I connected to, and really made it feel like home. She was inspiring to me because she has been doing social justice work for a quite a while and has made it her mission to shape and challenge USD to really evolve on a lot of various aspects (particularly with increased institutional support of LGBTQ+ students) that I think it’s needed to evolve on. For her to be a champion of that—to me, as an incoming grad student—was amazing to see. I believe that she’s retiring soon, which is going to be such a loss, but also, she is more than deserving of getting a chance to rest and relax. I’m definitely happy for her.

Dr. Zachary Green also had an amazing impact. I took one of his mindfulness courses at SOLES and it was very unique, engaging, and really challenged me as somebody who has a hard time sitting with themselves and sitting with those big questions. That’s a lot of the work that Dr. Green does and he is great at simulating and cultivating that environment where you have to do that. It’s not always the easiest, but the answers that you get from sitting with yourself and asking some of those hard questions can be so fruitful and so rewarding.

My former supervisor, Adan Sanchez, was also a great support. When they were my supervisor, they were the Associate Director of the United Front Multicultural Center (UFMC). I know for me, they were such a great mentor and provided such an open door for me to also talk about what it was like being a Latinx student at a predominantly white campus, and really talking through the challenges that came with that.      

Dr. Ted Martinez, was another one of my supervisors during my time in the program. They ran the NCCHC Leadership Fellows program. In addition to being a great supervisor, they also offered me that community feeling. They made USD feel like family to me. Because they were also Latinx identified, it was great to connect with them in that way. It felt like I was surrounded by folks that looked like me, who understood my cultural experience, and that was something I really valued.

What was your favorite class from your time at SOLES?

I have two! The mindfulness course that Dr. Green taught was one of my favorites. It was unconventional, but filled with so many questions and things that still provoke my thoughts even now. The other one would have to be 550: Leadership in Practice, taught by Dr. Terri Monroe. It was my first class of the grad program and I had been hearing about it for quite a while. The infamous 550 class. A lot of what I heard was some hesitation from other graduate students who had taken the course. When I took it, it was honestly my favorite because I love watching and analyzing interpersonal communications happening in real time. My bachelor’s degree is in communications, so getting to see all of that really play out in this setting was so interesting to me. Through the work, getting to dissect, and unpack. Who’s taking up leadership? Who’s on the balcony? What is the balcony? All of those components were fun for me. I say that it was fun and other students don’t see it the same way, which is fine. I think we all get various things out of the different classes that we take. But for me, it was one of the most valuable courses that I took at SOLES and it still helps me today and at my place of employment today. It also helps me in the various community work that I do where I work with various groups with people from all different kinds of backgrounds. That class taught me so much and is continuing to teach me so much. It was such a great foundational course, not just for higher ed, but for life in general. It prepares you for whatever sector of employment you decide to go in.     

How did you complete the international experience requirement?

I went to Bali, Indonesia, and I took a course that focused on art, leadership and community. Bali was amazing and that experience was amazing. The class really focused on how local communities within Bali infused art into their leadership practice. I think the United States has such an individualist culture that for community to really be the focus, I thought that it was nice seeing the difference of how leadership looks in a domestic context versus how it looks in an international context, specifically in Bali. Also, how they incorporated art into what they did and how they led. We visited a few museums, we went to some of the rice fields there, and we got to meet one of the princes of Bali. That was all really cool. In that experience I got to learn so much, not only from the communities of Bali, but also the various students that were also on the trip. I really valued that experience and value getting to share that experience with people I’m still friends with today. I’m getting married next year, and I hope that my partner and I can visit Bali for our honeymoon.  

Were you a part of any of the student organizations while you were at USD?

I was a member of the Graduate Student Council while I was there, which was a fun and interesting experience. I got to work with a lot of my peers and put on a lot of great social events. Reflecting on that, my heart goes out to the current grad students and how they’re going to be able to build that community online since those type of in-person social events are not necessarily going to happen this year. I valued that opportunity to get to socialize with other grad students from other programs and really build those connections and my network. I think as grad students, our experiences are unique and I think that was something that we had advocated for a while when I was on GSC. Grad students weren’t always central to some of the decisions that happened on campus. I hope that our current grad students are able to build that community even during COVID.

I was also a part of the Latinx Grad Student Association, as well. I was a member and then also a part of the executive board. That also helped with seeing other folks like myself in graduate school and us understanding what it was like to be both people of color and Latinx on campus. That really helped me feel more at home on campus.      

Where was your favorite place on campus?

The reflection pool behind the IPJ was my favorite spot and it has such a special memory. It was one of the first places that I took my parents when they visited and I have a picture of the three of us that we took at the reflection pool. My dad passed away about three years ago, and that picture of the three of us is one of my favorite pictures that I have of us. To have that moment captured in a photo, that place is forever tethered to a piece of my heart. Not only is it a beautiful view of San Diego, but to also get to share that with my parents was so meaningful and special.

What kind of mentorship did you have during your time at SOLES?

It was great having Dr. Getz as my faculty advisor, because she was someone I could really talk to and who really opened her door to talk me through everything that was happening. I was able to talk about challenges with my family and things happening within our cohort; she was someone who really helped get me through the program. Some of the people I met in my cohort were also amazing friends and mentors for me. They really supported me through those difficult two years.               

What is your favorite memory from your time at SOLES?

I don’t know if it’s my favorite memory, but it’s one that I’m still unpacking today and still sitting with. It was part of our cohort’s training that we did; one of the sessions was talking about race in higher education. It was definitely emotional. It required us to be vulnerable, honest, and authentic with how we talked about race and our relationship to race. I think the reason it sticks out to me is because those conversations are still happening today and they are still very much needed today. What I valued the most is that we were able to make space for that conversation. What everyone really needs right now is to have that space to really unpack what their relationship is with race in America. Especially when it comes to anti-blackness and everything that is currently happening in our country.

That training and those conversations are something that are still in my memory and are similar to the conversations I’m hoping to have with other staff members right now. As a person of color in this country, some of the things that happened after George Floyd’s murder really put a spotlight on how our campus’ aren’t doing enough to address things like anti-blackness and decolonialization. For me, I’m not going to sit around and wait for other folks to do something. I want to be a part of that change. Along with some other folks, I’m started an anti-oppression work group specifically for our area of Student Life at UC San Diego. The hope is that we can have those honest conversations about race, oppression, anti-blackness, and a lot of heavy topics that our students are more primed to talk about. One of the reasons I initiated the work group is because those opportunities are not always made available to and centered around career staff. I want to definitely provide that opportunity for staff to be able to learn from each other. That memory from SOLES is helping propel me to continue those conversations in the spaces that I inhabit to this day.

Tell us about your journey since graduating from SOLES.

After I graduated, I knew I wanted to do identity work, cultural work, and something with leadership. My first job out of grad school was the Office Manager & Affiliates Program Coordinator at the Cross-Cultural Center at UC San Diego. In that position, I was able to learn so much from the Director of the center, Dr. Edwina Welch, who I consider to be my femtor. I seek her out for guidance in terms of the various decisions that I make, in my professional work and in my life in general. She was one of the folks that really attracted me to that specific center and that work.

I worked in the CCC for about two years, working with the various student organizations that are affiliated with the center. My role was helping the various cultural student organizations connect with resources in our center, other resources on campus, and also providing them with leadership development. In getting to know a lot of those student organizations, it really helped me transition into my next role as the Community Programs Advisor in the Student Promoted Access Center for Education and Service (SPACES). SPACES is a student run, student initiated center that bridges educational equity for underserved and underrepresented populations both on campus and off; it’s students putting on programs for other students. My role is to assist students with program planning by helping to execute their vision for their programs and to aid in the development of the communities they support.  A lot of the students that I worked with in my job in the CCC were also affiliated with SPACES, so it was a fairly easy transition to my current position.

Once I graduated from USD, I realized that I hadn’t really explored much of the San Diego community. Now that I had all of this free time, I had to figure out what I wanted to do with it. For me, I find the most joy and fulfillment in volunteering my time to various organizations in San Diego. San Diego Pride has been amazing to me. As much as I’ve volunteered my time, I think they have invested in me as a community leader as well. I started out volunteering at the San Diego Pride Festival, taking tickets at the front door. In the years after that, I’ve taken on even more and more leadership opportunities at Pride. Currently, I’m one of their youth mentors, one of the assistant parade managers, and their Transgender Program Coordinator. All valuable experiences and all things that I love to do. They helped to really get me plugged into the community. I also participated in some of the San Diego LGBT Community Center’s programs. In 2017, I graduated from their Young Professionals’ Council Academy, which is for LGBTQ+ young professionals who want to learn from other community leaders, network with various nonprofits in San Diego, and learn about the importance of fundraising in our community. That was another avenue I was so happy to be able to connect with, after I graduated.

Most recently, I’ve been wanting to get more politically active. Right now, I am volunteering on a friend’s city council campaign and I’m also one of the board members for the City Heights Town Council. I’m really invested in my community, so I want to take an even greater role in helping uplift my community however I can. Right now, our City Heights Town Council initiatives have really been focusing on small businesses within City Heights; how can we make sure that we’re encouraging our community, our neighbors, and our residents to really invest in local businesses. Getting to organize virtually has been really new for a lot of people. I’ve been able to flex that ability that I think I’ve cultivated the last few years. Getting to do organizing online for my community in City Heights has been really rewarding. I’ve been lucky and privileged to be able to lead some of those initiatives. Although I love online work, I’m still hoping that we’ll see an end to COVID soon; I definitely miss in person community building. You can’t replace that human to human connection.

How has your SOLES education impacted your career and your career goals for the future?

The focus on leadership, particularly transformational leadership, has really informed how I navigate the world. Before SOLES, I didn’t really see myself as a leader and wasn’t sure I had anything of value to contribute. Because of the various program courses, experiences, and people that I met, all of that really opened my eyes to see the potential for myself to enact leadership. I carry that in everything that I do, and it has prompted me to want to get involved even more. Also, the fact that USD is a Changemaker campus had a profound impact on me. I had never heard the term Changemaker before, but I think that’s the best way I could describe what I got overall from my USD experience. It really shaped me into being a changemaker. In the work that I do with my students, both supporting them but also challenging them to think bigger and to think about their impact within their own communities that they serve. With the staff that I work with in Student Life, it’s asking those uncomfortable questions of how do we have those challenging conversations about race and anti-blackness on our campus? In order to create the change that we want to see, we need to be those who are initiating that conversation and following through with developing a path forward. Whether it’s doing volunteer work for various nonprofits in the area or in my professional career, I give back to my community because I want to make lasting change for the better.

Overall, leadership and Changemaking were my two biggest lessons from USD. They’re still having an impact today.

What advice would you give to a current student at SOLES?

Seek out mental health resources, no matter where you think you’re at with your mental health. Just like your physical health, mental health is just as important to take care of. Seeing a therapist or a counselor, being able to have a space that is your own to talk about what’s happening in your life is so, so important. I didn’t take advantage of that during my graduate program, but I wish that I had because I was dealing with a lot of heavy things. I didn’t have the professional help I needed back then. No matter where you’re at with mental health, still practice self-care and seek out resources.         

As hard as it is with a grad student schedule, getting out into the community is also important. There’s so much happening in San Diego that I didn’t even realize was happening because I was so in the bubble of trying to finish my grad program. There’s a breadth of wonderful opportunities in the San Diego community that I wish I had known about while I was in my program. Some of these opportunities are either completely free or have a sliding scale for students.

I would encourage current grad students to really try and reach out. As an graduate of USD, I’m also thinking about how I can do better of reaching back. I’ve been talking to Dr. Kirkley about the Pride Alumni group that is run through campus and how I can better contribute to that so that LGBTQ+ students on campus can also feel like they have a connection, not just on USD’s campus, but also in the surrounding San Diego area as well. I never got connected to the Latinx community or the LGBTQ+ community outside of campus when I was a student, but I wish that I had.

My last piece of advice is to remember to register to vote (and then go vote) and to also complete your Census!           


Amanda Gonzales
(619) 260-4539


Visit Campus

5998 Alcalá Park
San Diego, CA 92110