Right time, right place

Published 1:26 pm Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Yesenia Mendoza talks about her family's move to Austin and her own path, graduating from Austin High School, then Riverland Community College, and coming back to Riverland to work as a counselor. — Eric Johnson/photodesk@austindailyherald.com

Riverland counselor lives to help students

This story is a sneak peek of what appears in Progress 2012, publishing Sunday, Feb. 26.

Yesenia Mendoza lives to help others.

The 2006 Austin High School grad didn’t expect to come home so soon, but she jumped at the opportunity to serve her community as a counselor at Riverland Community College.

This story appears in Progress 2012, publishing Sunday, Feb. 26. Look for it on newsstands.

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Mendoza, the youngest of five children, first came to Austin as a junior in 2004 after her family moved from Grand Island, Neb., to work at Hormel Foods Corp. Though she had been in Nebraska since kindergarten, it didn’t take long for her to adjust to life in Austin.

“I thought it was really quiet, really small, really boring, but it had a sense, just a good tranquility to it,” Mendoza said.

She was involved in Austin from the start, playing soccer and participating in student groups to volunteer at AHS. After graduating in 2006, she moved on to Mt. Mercy College (now Mt. Mercy University). It was an important event for her as a first-generation college student, and she fell in love with the school after looking at its brochure.

“I just thought it was pretty and neat, and that it would be nice for me to start off with,” she said.

She earned a bachelor’s degree, and double-majored in international studies with a sociology concentration, and political science, with economics and business administration minors. For her, taking international studies hit home, as she learned about immigration, Latin American relations and socioeconomic politics. Yet she also kept busy working in student groups and committees.

“I had no time,” she said with a laugh. “I don’t know how I did it.”


Once she graduated, she was ready to help her community. As a senior, she was looking for work wherever she could get it, but she always knew she could come back to Austin and start her career.

She returned, working at Perkins to start. Mendoza caught a break after contacting Riverland officials about work and finding a counselor position opening. The position involved running the “Be Your Best” and “Cycles for Success” programs, which helps non-traditional and under-represented students get college access. That often means helping students of color who are in the same position she was just a few years ago.

“I feel like I came here at the right time,” Mendoza said. “I enjoyed my college experience, and being able to help other people as soon as I was done with college seemed like it would be a good opportunity for me to grow as a professional.”

Mendoza is more involved than ever in Austin, as she is a Rotaract member and a Vision 2020 volunteer. She may not stay in Austin forever, as she hopes to pursue a master’s degree and will go overseas for a year this fall. In the meantime, she wants to continue helping as many people as possible.

“I want to be here at least a couple more years,” Mendoza said. “What’s really important to me is to make a significant impact in the things I’m doing here before I can say I want to get my master’s.”