Fresh Perspectives on Higher Learning

Insights & Outlooks

Student Voice: A First-Generation Advocate for Equity in Education

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Student Voice: A First-Generation Advocate for Equity in Education

Editor’s Note: Moises Mendoza is a rising senior at Williams College where he is majoring in Political Science, and English, while also fulfilling a Latinx Studies concentration. A first-generation college student from Minnesota, Moises serves as the current co-President of the student government, which allows him to see close up how a college operates and learn more about issues related to access and resource allocation. He gives back through CISA (Coalition for Immigrant Student Advancement), which does educational and advocacy work at Williams around access for DACA and Undocumented students. His interest in public education has motivated his choice to teach G.E.D classes in his summer evenings and mentoring middle school students during his academic year. 

Insights & Outlooks (IO): Tell us about your pathway to college. What challenges have you encountered along the way and what has kept you motivated during your college career?

Moises Mendoza (MM): My mother always stressed the potential value of a college education. It’s not that she knew exactly what a college education would do for me, but she believed it would definitely put me in a much better position than we were in. My father was also very supportive, but he didn’t have much time to show me his support because he worked the overnight shifts at a manufacturing plant, his support came through his hard work in financially supporting the family. Growing up, I was never too sure how much I wanted to go to college because it wasn’t something that was common in my community. I didn’t know anyone who had ever graduated from college. It wasn’t until my sophomore year of high school after my mother passed away that I started to consider college more seriously. As the first in my family to go to college, it was challenging, but I chose to devote myself to this potential benefit that my mother believed.

During my junior year of high school, I applied to Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America (LEDA) and was selected as a LEDA scholar. LEDA is a nonprofit organization dedicated to empowering a community of young leaders from under-resourced backgrounds by supporting their higher education and professional success in order to create a more inclusive and equitable country. LEDA helped me on my path to college by providing test preparation, college guidance and writing instruction. I would not be where I am today without LEDA’s support and belief in my potential for success. This unconditional support from my family, my mentors, and the LEDA staff keeps me motivated during my college years as they help remind me why going to college is so important to help build a more equitable community when I go back to Minnesota after graduation.


IO: You’re a member of LEDA’s Policy Corps. Can you tell us more about what the Policy Corps members do and how you got involved?

MM: The LEDA Policy Corps is a part of the LEDA Policy Project, a brand-new initiative at LEDA aimed at leveraging diverse student perspectives in education policy conversations. I am a member of the very first LEDA Policy Corps, and our term just began on August 1st. We will be trained on the federal policy process and key topics in higher education so that we can best engage in these conversations through our participation in policy convenings, education conferences, and by writing op-eds about the issues that matter to our communities. LEDA opened an application for LEDA Scholars to apply for this opportunity and I am one of 18 Scholars selected as the inaugural Cohort of the LEDA Policy Corps. I applied because I knew it was a great opportunity to learn more about education policy and to advocate for the community that I come from: first-generation and immigrant students.


IO: As a student government leader, what do you think are some of the most important issues facing today’s students on campus?

MM: There are many hidden costs associated with college that impact low-income students in ways that differ from our peers. Providing for the cost of books, travel to campus, and basic living needs can be hard for low-income students because of the financial constraints many of our families have. As a part of the Williams financial aid package, there is a required Williams Summer Earnings Contribution; an estimate of earned summer wages that students are expected to use to pay for the cost of attendance. For low-income students, that fee is difficult to come up with because our summer earnings help to provide for basic living needs during the summer or in helping to support our families.

It isn’t rare for students to reduce their food consumption in the summer or reduce their meal plan during the year to save enough to pay their fee. At the same time, schools are taking the initial steps to help students that need more resources.  For example, Williams College provides free books for all students on financial aid. Because my books are paid for, I’m able to spend more time focusing on studying for exams and writing papers for class instead of worrying about how to pay for my textbooks during the school year. I am fortunate because Williams is a well-resourced institution. I know not all colleges have the ability to buy textbooks for their financial aid students, but they can learn from this program and consider the ways that their low-income students are financially burdened and brainstorm ways that they might be able to lessen the burden.


IO: How did you become passionate about education policy?

MM: It all started during my time at Harding Senior High School in St. Paul Minnesota. At Harding I was surrounded by many bright students, many a lot sharper than me, yet I was one of the few students admitted to a top tier college. I never thought of myself as brighter than my peers because we were always in the same classes nor did I ever think of myself as more ambitious because we were all doing the same extracurriculars. One of the biggest factors that solidified the difference between me and the other bright students at Harding was merely our exposure to higher education. I was in college preparatory programs like LEDA, had incredible mentors that helped me through the college application process, and had the unconditional moral support of my family.  I became passionate about education policy and higher education when I asked myself a question: “why me and not them?” There are so many brilliant students that never make it to college because of the complicated process. If we make college more accessible the brilliant students from my high school would not only improve the college communities but also the country as a whole.


IO: Are there specific policy remedies that you think could help more student succeed or make college more accessible and meaningful?

MM: All actors within the college process should redesign forms that are required for enrollment and reevaluate how they are messaging information that gets delivered to high school students. For example, financial aid applications such as the FAFSA and the CSS profile are not straightforward and require a high level of parental involvement. Designing these forms to be more informed by the actual user experience can be beneficial to all applicants, and especially for historically marginalized students who are first-generation and have little to no support in the process. This is a low-cost policy solution that can have a large-scale impact.


IO: What has surprised you the most about your college experience?

MM: It was surprising to hear people describe the “poor” as a substitute for the working class. I never thought that I was from a “poor” family; my parents were always able to make ends meet and sometimes buy us toys for Christmas, but at Williams, I was “poor” because I was working class. I was most surprised about how little people talk about money at Williams while it holds such an important role in our experiences. At Williams, everyone talks about their dreams and doing year-long fellowships abroad, but no one really talks about how much those opportunities cost. While everyone is taking advantage of opportunities, I’m thinking about how I can help my father with his bills and if the opportunities I take will help me do that while also helping my community.


IO: What plans do you have after graduation?

MM: I’m not too certain, yet. Right now, I’m only certain of one thing, after graduation I want to use the knowledge and resources that I got from my time at Williams and help strengthen my community back in Minnesota.