Many years ago, when he made some poor decisions, he says going to college wasn't even a consideration.
For University of Minnesota Crookston alumnus Ken Mendez, a 2011 alum, it’s a legacy integrally connected to the history of northwest Minnesota, the University of Minnesota Crookston, and the people of the Red River Valley.
Mendez’s father, Jesus, was born in Mexico, and after crossing the border in Texas, they were contracted to work in the sugar beet fields around East Grand Forks. According to an interview with Jesus by the Minnesota Historical Society, he arrived in the area in 1927.
Jesus married Ramona in 1943 and together they raised ten children, including their son, Ken, who is next to the youngest. Devoted to their children and their community, the home of Ramona and Jesus became a connection point for migrant families arriving in Crookston. Eventually both Jesus and Ramona would find jobs in Crookston, but they would never stop serving their community. Jesus even interpreted at the hospital when Mexican women were giving birth.
Over the years, several of Ramona and Jesus’ children would graduate from the University of Minnesota Crookston Technical College and Ramona who worked for 20 years in housekeeping and plant services on the campus.
By his own admission, Ken did not find his path to the University of Minnesota Crookston an easy one.
“I haven’t always made the best life decisions,” Mendez says. “Until one day when Tom Fuchs, a counselor and friend, said he wanted to take me out to campus. I usually refused offers like this, but for some reason this time, I said ‘yes.’ That day marks the moment when I stopped doing what didn’t work for me.”
Together, Fuchs and Mendez listed the five biggest obstacles to going back to school.
“Somehow, I was able to overcome all five obstacles even though at the time, they seemed insurmountable,” Mendez remembers. “I owe a lot to people at the University of Minnesota Crookston. Every time I thought I couldn’t make it, someone was there to help me find the way.
“I think often of my mother, and how much I wish she knew how my life turned around,” he continues. “Every single thing I have been involved in has a direct connection to my family legacy.”
His involvement on campus has a legacy of its own. Mendez led efforts around four Cinco de Mayo celebrations, five theatre performances, and he has been a part of several grant-writing projects. Mendez has brought Major League Baseball Hall of Famer Darryl Strawberry, Pulitzer Prize-winner Taylor Branch, and Grammy Award-winner Michael Farris to campus.
Around campus, Mendez is known for his selflessness and his determination to carry forward what his parents started. “I wish I could share all this with my mother, but I can’t,” Mendez reflects. “But what I can do is make a difference in the lives of those around me especially those in my own community.”
Mendez is fueled by spreading hope, inspiring others and possesses a genuine interest in people and he doesn’t use “no” as an answer anymore. In the same way his family served as a hub for migrant families in Crookston, Mendez is a hub for bringing meaningful, thought-provoking events to campus.
“One thing about this campus and my work in mailroom is I have the chance to talk to people all over campus,” Mendez says. “It has given me the opportunity to work with faculty and staff from across departments along with administration. It makes this place unique because the people here are accessible and always willing to help.”
One of the most recent success stories for Mendez is a grant-writing project that was successfully funded. The project, designed to increase participation by women and minorities from rural areas in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) as well as the areas of food, agriculture, natural resources, and human (FANH) sciences, was funded by the USDA. The $92,000 grant award will help foster mentoring relationships between high-school students, college students, and researchers at the University of Minnesota Crookston.
Another project for Mendez is the opening of an exhibition of prints by photographer Russell Lee. “Roots of the Red River Valley,” a pictorial history of the 1937 sugar beet harvest, will be on display on campus from Monday, Nov. 4 through Saturday, Nov. 9.
More than 80 images by Lee, known for his work with the Farm Security Administration, will be available in Bede Ballroom of Sargeant Student Center from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. throughout the exhibit.
The photographs tell a story in three distinct categories: the migrant worker, the farmer, and the factory.
“I have been forever changed by this campus, and it is my goal to give back in the ways I can,” Mendez says. “I have worked with some great people here who continue to find ways to bring dreams to reality. I am fortunate to work with people who are willing to support and encourage me as I strive in my own way to help others.”