Popular culture teaches us that guardian angels have wings and wear white robes.
That’s not how it worked out for Jesus Mendez of Dardanelle. His guardian angel, at least as it related to his dream of earning a college degree, was a red-headed health and physical education instructor in an Arkansas Tech University pullover.
The story of how Pete Kelly connected Mendez with the scholarship assistance he needed to attend Arkansas Tech began with family ties. Kelly’s daughter, Kylie, was friends with Mendez’s little brother, Leo, when they were in elementary school.
“I got to know the family really well, and I knew their situation coming from Mexico,” said Kelly, who grew up in Yell County, graduated from Arkansas Tech and has served on the health and physical education faculty at his alma mater since 2011. “Jesus was the first one in his family to graduate high school in the United States, and during the weeks leading up to his graduation I got real serious with him one afternoon. I asked him what his plans were, and he said he didn’t have any because he wasn’t sure what options he had.”
Timing was on Mendez’s side. His graduation from high school coincided with a new partnership between Arkansas Tech and the Consulate of Mexico in Little Rock that allowed ATU to provide scholarship assistance for qualified individuals of Mexican descent.
Coincidentally, one of the central figures in making the new scholarship program at ATU possible was another Yell County product --- ATU alumna and now retired faculty member Dr. Mildred Diane Gleason.
“That’s where it came together,” said Kelly. “A few days later I showed back up at (Mendez’s) house with some pamphlets. From that point forward, he started filling out paperwork and made sure he got his admission papers and ACT scores in. Next thing you know, he gets some of that money to come (to ATU).”
Mendez graduated from Arkansas Tech on Saturday, May 11, with a Bachelor of Science degree in biology under the biomedical option. He plans on taking the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) later this year and applying to medical school.
“Mr. Pete has always been a real big supporter of mine,” said Mendez when asked to reflect on how his ATU journey began. “He went and helped me buy my first set of books, and he’s been there for me every step of the way. He’s a great guy, and I’m very privileged to know him.”
Once Mendez began classes at Arkansas Tech, he found a supportive and welcoming environment that helped him reach his goals.
“Everybody helps everybody,” said Mendez. “If I have a problem with something, I know I can go to my friends or faculty and they will help me. If someone else has a problem and needs help with something, they can come to me. It’s that sense of community that is so awesome here at Arkansas Tech.”
Even though Mendez was studying in a different department, Kelly kept tabs on his friend and watched as he progressed to graduation.
“Each semester I would just check on him and make sure he was doing what he needed to do, and by golly he did it,” said Kelly. “I’m extremely proud of him. His family and I go back a lot of days, and being able to play a small part in his college career has been huge for me. He is the true story of getting a college degree. His grit is phenomenal.”
Grit is developed when tough people encounter tough times. Mendez experienced the most difficult of times at the beginning of his senior year in high school when younger brother Leo passed away at the age of 10.
“That whole year was difficult for (Jesus),” said Kelly, who served as an honorary pallbearer at Leo’s funeral. “(Jesus) still had enough gumption to want to get up and go. Others probably told him he couldn’t do it because of his situation, but he never listed to the naysayers.”
Thoughts of Leo, and his entire family, were foremost in Mendez’s mind as he prepared to walk across the Tucker Coliseum floor and receive his degree.
“I think he’d be really proud of his big brother,” said Mendez when asked what his little brother would think about his graduation. “My parents (Mario and Celia Avila Mendez) arrived in the U.S. with $20 in their pocket and hope to give their kids a better chance…to give them something they were never able to do. I think it’s great I’ve been able to get where I am at. I couldn’t have done it without my parents. I love them, and I’m excited to see where life takes me.”