2023 Brown Award Winner: Lesly Mendez

Lesly Mendez has learned that leaders pay a price on the path to creating change.

“You sacrifice a lot,” said Mendez. “Sometimes you don’t want to talk to people about the barriers you’ve faced because people look up to you or think you have it all together. I don’t. I’m a human, too. I go through things, too. You just can’t let things get you down. Get up, get ready and keep going because life doesn’t stop.”

Mendez overcame every challenge over four years at Arkansas Tech University to become a first-generation college graduate and earn the 2023 Jill Lestage Brown Service Leadership Award. She will be recognized during ATU spring commencement ceremonies at Tucker Coliseum in Russellville on Saturday, May 6.

It’s the culmination of a journey that began in January 2019 when Mendez attended Time Out for Tech, ATU’s annual preview day for high school seniors. It was that day she decided to enroll at Arkansas Tech following her graduation from Parkview Magnet High School in Little Rock.

She admits making the transition from her metropolitan hometown to the more pastoral setting in Russellville was difficult at first.

“I definitely experienced culture shock,” said Mendez. “The first three weeks were just not it for me. It was hard adjusting myself and getting to know people.”

Mendez cites the decision to participate in the ATU Freshman Leadership Experience as a turning point in acclimating to her new surroundings.

“Those people were my first college friends,” said Mendez. “To this day, I still talk to them.”

With her ATU network established, Mendez set about the task of advocating for and helping Hispanic, Latino and first-generation students like her.

She founded and served as president of the ATU Latin Student Organization, which has grown from six members in 2019 to 130 members in 2023. Her favorite memories of the organization surround the painting, food and fashion events they hosted as a means of sharing Latin and Hispanic culture.

Mendez was vice president for La Mariposa Experience, an executive board member for Gold Cabinet, a senator for ATU Student Government Association and a student worker in the ATU Office of First-Generation Student Experience, where she collaborated with her mentor, Deidra Dillard, to develop a podcast designed to assist students in making the transition to ATU.

“When I want something done, I’m going to get it done one way or another,” said Mendez. “I’ve always had to learn how to do it myself and be the first person. English was a struggle and a barrier for my parents, so I had to be the one to step up.”

That determination has driven Mendez to seek out growth opportunities beyond the boundaries of the ATU campus. She participated in a study away program with The Washington Center, an internship with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute and the Leadership Challenge Event hosted by the Washburn University Leadership Institute.

Mendez was also named a fellow for the Newman Civic Fellowship, through which she created and facilitated a deliberative dialogue forum informing others about the political system.

“With time, I know that the things I’ve learned out of state I want to bring back to my home state,” said Mendez. “This is my home, and this is where change needs to continue.”

Advocating for change is not for the faint of heart. Mendez’s ATU experience has taught her how to find common ground with those who do not share her vision.

“People question it a lot, and that’s the time I have to shine my light on them and tell them the purpose of making change,” said Mendez. “It’s okay to have different opinions. That’s something I’ve learned being a leader. Not everyone is going to be on the same page, and that’s okay. As long as I know you have that skill set and you know I have this skill set, we can do something together.”

Mendez is graduating from Arkansas Tech with a Bachelor of Arts degree in political science and minors in leadership studies and Spanish.

Her future plans include graduate study and working abroad with the Embassy of Spain to help educate elementary students about American culture.

“I feel like I did what I could do for this campus,” said Mendez when asked to reflect upon her time at ATU. “It was about helping students increase our retention rate for Hispanic and Latino students. Overall, I had the best four years. Obviously, I had my ups and downs, but I’m not the same person I was four years ago. I know that for sure. 2019 to 2023…that’s a lot of growing and experience. It was the best four years of my life.

“I know the future has something great for me,” continued Mendez. “There are some sacrifices I’ll have to make, but I know if I continue the work I’m doing I’ll be able to get where I want to be.”

Lesly Mendez and Arkansas Tech University President Dr. Robin E. Bowen