A Year Of Unprecedented Challenges For Outgoing Student Body President
Like most people last spring, Eric Mendoza ’21 had little idea what challenges lay ahead when he became Student Body President at Texas A&M in April 2020, leading more than 70,000 Aggies, one of the largest enrollments in the nation.
Classes moved online for lockdown, social unrest came during the summer and a winter storm crippled the state – Mendoza faced a presidential term unlike any other.
“Being entrusted to carry forward the voice of such a large student body is something I felt lucky to do every day, especially in a critically important year for our campus,” said Mendoza, an economics major from Houston who concluded his term as president last month.
Texas A&M University Interim President John L. Junkins called it a “pleasure and a privilege” to work with Mendoza, and that through it all, “he was always there to look out for student interests and safety. He proved to me that he was wise beyond his years with the way he helped build bridges between administrations, displaying flexibility and equanimity while always helping us see every issue from the student perspective.”
As leader of the Student Government Association (SGA), the student body president is responsible for internal vision setting within SGA, external communication, and advocacy to stakeholders. Perhaps most important, though, is responding to the immediate needs of students, “no matter the circumstance,” Mendoza said – especially true throughout the often-turbulent events of the past year.
“Eric was skillful in a year full of the need for adaptability and creative solutions,” said Greg Fink, student affairs coordinator for Campus Engagement & Traditions, Division of Student Affairs. “His keen understanding of how students experienced the pandemic, let alone all the other uniqueness of the year, allowed him to comprehensively advocate on their behalf through such a dynamic time. I truly believe the student body had a knowledgeable leader guiding them through uncharted waters this year.”
Fink noted it was under Mendoza’s leadership that SGA won an Adair Student Organization of the Year Award.
Although his term was challenging, Mendoza said he was fortunate to have served Aggies, particularly.
“From the transition to online learning, to the transition back to hybrid virtual/in-person learning, to the campus climate discussions, to winter storm relief, our students actively worked to find solutions alongside us,” he said. “Challenge after challenge, they continued to speak out and serve selflessly.”
Mendoza said throughout the pandemic he worked closely to convey student sentiment during fall and spring planning processes, and worked with university administrators to ensure there were as many in-person experiences as possible. He also worked to address pressing concerns including grade accommodations (pass/fail grading) by working with the Faculty Senate Executive Committee. They were able to extend the P/F option until after final grades during the spring 2020 semester.
As for the social unrest that occurred last summer as a result of the murder of George Floyd, Mendoza said he made diversity, equity and inclusion on campus a top priority within SGA.
“Our SGA Diversity Commission has been extremely important in keeping the conversation active,” he said. “I think it is important to first find common ground with others that think differently and remind ourselves of what unites us. Once we do that, it’s easier to disagree with one another and have needed, candid conversations.”
During his tenure, Mendoza served on the President’s Commission on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and said it was an important way to document the conversations and work that has been ongoing around campus climate for years.
“Serving on the commission gave me the ability to spend months listening to different perspectives from many of our current students, former students, and faculty and staff,” he said. “In fact, the work is still ongoing. There are numerous ‘action teams’ started by Interim President Junkins in response to the Commission’s report, and I am currently working to co-lead the action team covering the Campus Experience.
“While these are just the first few steps, I think it is important to recognize the contributions of all of those who have dedicated themselves to improving our campus for our current students, and generations of Aggies to come – this past year, and beyond,” he said.
Come early 2021, many students were negatively affected by the winter storm that caused massive damage throughout the state of Texas. Mendoza led SGA efforts to help. “We worked within our SGA branches to ensure students had the resources they needed academically and financially,” he said. “We reached out to peer institutions to figure out best practices, and even partnered with the University of Texas to help increase the resources our students had to respond to the storm’s impact.”
The latter effort became known as “Maroon and Orange: Texas Tough” and resulted in more than $235,000 in funds raised to benefit Aggie and Longhorn students harmed by the storm.
Being an Aggie is a family tradition for Mendoza, whose parents graduated from the university.
“Texas A&M has the power to transform your life if you let it – I saw this firsthand within my parents’ lives,” he said. “No other institution walks alongside you throughout your life like Texas A&M and our Aggie Network.”
Mendoza holds the distinction of first Hispanic student body president at Texas A&M, said he hopes students see that as a reflection of what they can accomplish on campus, especially underclassmen and prospective students.
“As Texas A&M approaches the status of being an HSI (Hispanic Serving Institution), I think it is also a great opportunity to recognize where we are as a campus community and in our university’s history,” he said. “This is special to me because I get to share so many of my Aggie experiences with my mom ’88, dad ’87, and sister ’18, all former students.
“The impact Texas A&M has had on us is not unique to the Mendoza family though, whether you are a first-generation college student or fifth generation Aggie, there is no doubt a home for you in the Aggie family,” he continued. “Our ability to highlight this milestone gives me great hope for the future of Texas A&M, and that while I might be the first Hispanic student body president, I will not be the last. After all, I am here today in this elected position because of our student body’s willingness to give me this opportunity.”
Mendoza graduates this week with his bachelor’s in economics and will stay at Texas A&M one more year to finish his master’s in finance through the MSF program at Mays Business School.
“We’re very fortunate that Eric has chosen to pursue graduate school at Texas A&M, and we look forward to his continued involvement and engagement with the Aggie community,” Junkins said.
Mendoza hopes eventually to work in the Washington, D.C. area, “and also seek out ways to be active in areas of interest including civic engagement and public policy,” he said, adding whatever he’s doing he will find ways to be of service to others and stay engaged with the Aggie Network.
He’s quick to credit others for his success as student body president, saying it’s vital to recognize all those who participated.
“I often get the attention in this role, but I want to recognize the service and dedication of all those within SGA whose work did not go unnoticed, especially my executive cabinet without whom I could not have succeeded,” he said.
Mendoza learned many lessons about leadership during his tenure, one of which was the importance of empathy. “We have over 70,000 students and they each have their own unique challenges that we want to help with,” he said. “I try to empathize with the various student experiences while recognizing I cannot fully understand everything every student goes through.
“However, I believe in times of adversity that if you advocate for the most vulnerable student, and most pressing student needs, the vast majority of the student body will be positively impacted by those decisions.”