First Gen: Inspiring Stories Of MBAs Who Beat The Odds

Izaak Mendoza

University of Minnesota, Carlson School of Management

Class: 2020

Hometown: Cheyenne, Wyoming

Fun Fact About Yourself: I performed in the Super Bowl 52 Halftime Show with Justin Timberlake, as a tuxedo-clad snare drummer in the drumline!

Undergraduate School and Major:

Undergrad: University of Wyoming (BA International Studies)

Other Graduate: University of Minnesota (Master of Public Policy) (Graduate Minor in Mindfulness & Restorative Justice Practices)

Most Recent Employer and Job Title: (still working for both)

  • U.S. State Department – Office of Public Engagement — Programs and Campaigns Intern
  • Minnesota Council on Latino Affairs – Digital Communications Lead & Policy Fellow

What did your parents do for a living? My mother felt it was important to remain at home while my brothers and I went through school, so she stayed home and was heavily involved in classroom volunteering. My father has worked as an auto body technician since he graduated high school and also teaches automotive repair a few nights a week at a local community college.

What was the highest level of education achieved by your mother and your

father? High school diploma.

Which of your family members is your biggest inspiration? Why? My grandmother Sylvia is the one of the most selfless people I have ever known. The way she cares and embraces everyone she meets is one of the most powerful acts of love I’ve seen. She is devoted to taking care of her entire family, always putting the needs of others before herself. She finds joy in simple things, and always seems to embrace each day with a smile. She is my biggest inspiration because I hope to emulate her sense of unconditional love and positivity in all I do, in my both my work and family life.

What was the moment that led you to decide to pursue higher education? As I began high school in the international baccalaureate program, I realized I may have the opportunity to go to college and become the first one in my entire family to pursue higher education. I had always seen my father work so tirelessly in his manual labor job, while never reaching the levels of promotion or compensation he deserved. I knew that higher education was an avenue that could lead to better jobs, and I wanted to make sure my career was in something I truly loved doing and was passionate about. I also devoted a significant amount of time and energy into the marching performing arts. I realized that if I continued my involvement at the university level, I would have that same system of support and structure, which provided somewhat of a family atmosphere I could count on as I walked this new road.

What was your biggest worry before going for your undergraduate degree? I had always been an outgoing “people person” and knew I would thrive in a career where I could interact with others and think creatively — but I felt that I needed to pursue something with a more tangible outcome that would lead to better financial success. I was worried that my college career would be a waste if I didn’t choose a competitive field of study in the sciences. I began my studies in the School of Engineering, only to realize some time later that I should be pursuing something I was passionate about and could bring my whole authentic self to.

What was the most challenging part of getting your undergraduate degree? Navigating the world of higher education all on my own, from figuring out financial aid to discovering the importance of taking part in internships and research opportunities. I did not have anyone in my family I could turn to for guidance on taking out student loans or which programs of study would be most marketable in the current economy. I had switched majors about two years into my degree. With an interest in many fields, it took me seven years to complete my undergraduate major and four minors.

What didn’t your family understand about the higher education experience that you

wish they would understand better? My family knew that in college, you go to class and years later you graduate with a diploma. Yet, it was the all the microchoices that make up the fabric of a college student’s life that either seemed foreign to them or was just part of a world vastly different from what they had ever experienced: The balancing of academics and extracurriculars, learning to manage a budget, and working part-time jobs while enrolled in classes. It also seemed hard for my family to understand what jobs an “international studies” major could lead to. They were always incredibly supportive and proud of me, but I always felt that I was “leading the charge” alone.

What led you to pursue an MBA degree? My desire to pursue an MBA is twofold. It has always been deeply rooted within me to address complex issues in a way that brings people together. Because of this, I wanted experience in various industries that helped me understand their role in our world, and to be able to relate to the different worldviews they may have. I went through job experiences in the food, banking, aviation, corrections, education, and media industries. I began to understand that the fabric of our society has both policy and business intricately interwoven into it — and in order to address complex societal issues, policy and business must work together as part of the solution. I began my dual degree program in both, and spent this summer working for the federal government in helping entrepreneurs across Latin America with leadership training and business resources that are helping them create more stable economies within their home countries.

Second, I knew that an MBA program would give me the strategic management skills I needed in leading myself, others, and organizations. Tackling issues like worldwide food security would not only require leading teams of passionate diplomats eager to make social change, but partnering with businesses who have a strong sense of social responsibility, as well as knowing how to tactically operate teams of NGO’s across the globe who are the ones often implementing the change. I felt an MBA was the best way to gain these skills, and so I was driven to pursue this opportunity.

How did you choose your MBA program? As my wife and I sought out which graduate programs best suited our passions, we both landed on the University of Minnesota, which was our top choice. We both fell in love with the culture of the University, the wide range of opportunities we were able to take part and be leaders in, and we both deeply connected with the faculty of our programs. I knew that the intimate cohort size and experiential learning model at the Carlson School were crucial in taking classroom lessons and directly applying them in real world settings that would provide me with industry experience and a professional network I could build upon.

What was your biggest worry before starting your MBA? I was concerned that I did not have enough business experience to jump into an MBA program. I spent much of my free time listening to business podcasts I loved, yet I had not studied business in my undergraduate studies, and I didn’t know if that would impact me negatively. I knew I had achieved great results in delivering strategic messaging in my years of experience doing digital marketing, and I was known for driving results to those I provided consulting services for. However, I did not know if I would measure up to those coming into the program from a business background.

How were you able to finance your MBA as a first generation student? Unfortunately, I have had to rely on federal financial aid thus far, in addition to working part time to make monthly ends meet. I was not awarded a merit aid package, but have been searching for graduate assistantship positions all of last year, and will continue to do so. Thankfully, my wife has an assistantship — and its spousal benefits do provide me with an in-state tuition waiver.

What advice would you have for other first-generation college students? Three things come to mind as I think about what advice I would give other first-generation students.

Be persistent – If you’re the first one in your family to navigate this road, it is incredibly important that you are persistent about your goals. Be driven to achieve what you want and utilize all of your resources to position you best to do that.

Play to your strengths – Don’t try to be somebody that you’re not. Be self-aware of what you excel at, and learn to turn those strengths into the pillars of what you end up doing.

Embrace the suck – The road through higher education as a first-generation student feels lonely at times. It can feel like the cards are stacked against you, or that you don’t know who to turn to for guidance. But learning how to adapt to situations, and figuring out how to respond to things instead of merely react gives you the life skills and the grit to manage anything that comes your way.

What do you plan to pursue after graduation? My dream later in life is to pursue international diplomacy and see how I can help create lasting social impact through business. I want to take the strategic leadership and management skills I’ll gain and apply them to the world’s most complex challenges as a diplomat in the Foreign Service.

But short term, I love crafting an organization’s strategy and using marketing tools to interact with target audiences in clever ways. I’m definitely interested in pursuing that further and using the years of experience I’ve had in media and digital marketing to help advance the goals of our most innovative companies!