Gaby Mendoza walked onto the College of the Canyons campus for the first time three years ago with a lack of direction and no social circle to latch onto.
But as it turns out, those circumstances were only temporary — as with her acceptance to NASA’s National Community College Aerospace Scholars program in August, Mendoza confirmed her transformation from awkward newcomer to role model.
“I didn’t know anything about schools when I came here,” said Mendoza, an Ecuadorian native who first arrived in the United States without family support and completely on her own in January 2010. “I thought I would just go here and transfer and take things from there. But the more exposure I got to certain organizations and companies, the more I realized that it’s competitive out there, and that I’d have to study and put myself into contact with a lot of opportunities if I wanted to present myself as a professional.”
At COC, Mendoza saw an opportunity in the Math Engineering Science Achievement program, which helps financially disadvantaged and underrepresented students gain access to high caliber academic and professional resources.
“Some of our students come in with just a basic knowledge of algebra and trigonometry from their high school experience, others come in having passed advanced placement classes in calculus, so we have a wide range of students” says MESA director Eric Lara of the center’s student demographic. “But the commonality is that they are first generation, educationally disadvantaged college students — so they’re missing that direction and they don’t necessarily know what to look for or where to look for it.”
The program, housed in Aliso Lab, currently accommodates just over 200 College of the Canyons students. MESA participants have access to computers, lockers, faculty and peer tutoring, counseling, priority registration and a warm and enthusiastic learning environment.
Since taking over as program director in early 2014, Lara has developed a standardized curriculum emphasizing GPA improvement, workshop participation, applications for scholarship programs and involvement in career development opportunities.
Pending approval, the MESA center will also be home to the COC chapter of the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, a national organization that Mendoza and Lara have worked together to bring to the college in the form of a club.
The relationship between Mendoza, Lara and SHPE is logical given Lara’s educational background — as he earned his Ed.D. in Education through his research and dissertation on the retention of Latino engineering students.
Mendoza, a peer tutor at the MESA center in her spare time, will serve as the club’s first president.
Yet, perhaps Mendoza’s most exciting endeavor is her participation in the NCAS program, which is still in progress after beginning in August.
The NCAS program provides participants with an opportunity to enjoy web-based interactive learning courtesy of NASA professionals. As part of her NCAS experience, Mendoza is required to construct and deploy rovers to Mars, as well as compile reports summarizing the process.
Mendoza is striving to earn eligibility for a 3-day trip to NASA headquarters in Houston, for which she’ll first have to navigate the three online components of her NCAS course.
Each component is followed by a test, in which participants must score at least a 90 percent to move forward. Mendoza has cruised to 100 percent scores on her first two tests.
Some other notable accomplishments of Mendoza’s include her participation in research at California State University at Northridge (CSUN) last summer, as well as her status as a three-time COC Institutional Scholarship recipient.
The 23-year-old also attends monthly paid workshops at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena.
“Eric received an e-mail sent to community colleges saying they wanted one student who was mature and involved, and who would take advantage of this program,” said Mendoza of her involvement in the monthly program at JPL. “I guess that’s when he thought of me.”
For more information about the College of the Canyons MESA program and its participation requirements, visit www.canyons.edu/offices/mesa.