Overcoming Major Challenges Drives Alum's Success
"I don't understand why you have to go to college. After all, sooner or later you're just going to get married and be a housewife." These are words that a young Nora Mendez often heard from her mother.
Nora was born in Jalisco, Mexico, the youngest in a family of nine. After her father died when she was a year old, leaving the family with no money and many debts, her mother worked long hours washing and ironing clothes while her older brothers left high school to work in the fields to help feed the large family.
When Nora was five, her mother came to Southern California with Nora following when she was 10 years old. In the beginning, it was hard to understand the lectures of her fifth-grade teacher, but as time passed she became more comfortable with the language.
Nora persevered and became the first member of her family to receive a high school diploma. She then earned her associate's degree from Santa Ana College in 1999 and a bachelor's degree in human services from California State University, Fullerton. This was quite an achievement, considering her mother and father only finished the first grade.
Nora also faced significant challenges growing up in a dangerous and low-income part of Santa Ana that was rife with crime and drugs. On her way to school, she remembers having to walk by the local liquor store which was a hangout for gangsters and drug dealers.
However, a bright spot for the family was the opportunity to live in brand-new housing built by the Orange County Community Housing Corporation (OCCHC), which also tore down the liquor store to build apartments. She cites the importance of this stable and affordable housing environment as a positive influence on her ability to continue her education. But the challenges of daily life in the community left an indelible impression on Nora that drove her college education and career direction.
"As I got older, I realized how fortunate I was to live among poverty and unpleasant people because every day I grew stronger and it gave me a better understanding of what people endure when they lack financial or educational resources," Nora observed. "It also made me understand that people need role models that are active in their community. I have always wanted to help the disadvantaged, those who have been forgotten by our society."
Nora began working at OCCHC as a student intern in 1999 and is now the deputy executive director of this non-profit organization that helps low-income people by providing safe, decent and affordable housing. Their core belief is that every person deserves the opportunity to live in a place that provides comfort and safety at the end of the day.
"My work at OCCHC enables me to be an advocate for families who are currently and potentially facing the challenges my family faced," Nora said. "We call our work 'Stepping UP' to communicate that our residents must do the 'stepping up' in order to succeed. We only light the path and encourage hope. The rest is up to them."
Nora also met her husband, Roberto Gonzalez, at Santa Ana College. Roberto earned his associate's degree in liberal arts at Santa Ana College, a bachelor's degree in U.S. history from the University of California, Los Angeles, a master's degree in counseling from California State University, Long Beach, and is now pursuing a doctoral degree in education at the University of Southern California. He shares Nora's commitment to helping others achieve success as director of the Upward Bound program at California State University, Fullerton.
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