SOTU special guest: Anthony's story

It’s not every day that the First Lady invites you to Washington, especially for a second time. That’s what happened to iMentor student Anthony Mendez, now a freshman at University of Hartford, who attended the President’s 2015 State of the Union address as a special guest of the First Lady of the United States.

“It was just unbelievable,” Anthony said. “To be able to sit right next to the first lady and have her remember my name. She was so helpful in teaching me how the speech worked and pointing out who was who in the room. All the work she is doing through the Reach Higher initiative has changed my life!”

In June, Anthony was handpicked by Michelle Obama to attend a discussion on her Reach Higher Initiative, which aims to inspire young people to complete a college education. Six months later, Mrs. Obama personally requested that Anthony sit as a guest in her box for the State of the Union. It is not surprising, though, that he made a lasting impression.

Anthony is the first in his family to graduate from high school and attend college. Growing up in the South Bronx with his mother and three siblings wasn’t easy for Anthony. The men in his life have been at best transient and at worst violent. His mother had to drop out of high school in her sophomore year and has struggled since to find steady employment. As early as first grade, Anthony remembers waking himself up to get to school on time and having no one around to help him with his homework.

When asked about what challenges were the most difficult in high school, Anthony recalls two life-changing events. When he was in 9th grade, his best friend was shot and killed in his neighborhood. Though he doesn’t share a lot about this event, he cites this tragic loss as one of the pivotal moments in his life to date. Anthony quit running track that year and refused to talk to anyone about his friend’s death.

The very next year, in 10th grade, Anthony’s family was evicted from their apartment, forcing them to relocate to a homeless shelter two hours away. Out of shame and embarrassment, Anthony told friends and teachers he had moved in with an aunt. In order to make it to school on time, he had to wake up at 4:30 a.m. every day for six months.

Despite these challenges, Anthony has grown into a quietly confident, funny, communicative, and optimistic young man. He is quick to point out that his strength comes from the mentors in his life. Jack Rogers has been Anthony’s mentor for the past four years though iMentor and Anthony considers his track coach the father figure he never had. Jack, a former college administrator, says he realized what an extraordinary person Anthony is when they were working on interviewing skills. There, Anthony articulated his supremely challenging life experiences in an authentic and inspiring narrative, leaving him feeling awed and inspired. About his mentor, Anthony says, Jack has “always been there for me. I never thought I would know someone like that.” Anthony’s track coach, the father figure he never had, gave him tough love and plenty of encouragement and the mantra, “stay focused.” Describing Anthony, his track coach gushes, citing his state rankings in each event from memory. Anthony is a true leader with an “impeccable work ethic,” his coach says. “Despite all of these circumstances, Anthony still manages to smile and lead a strong team.”

At the University of Hartford, Anthony is persisting despite the challenges of being a first-generation college student. The transition from the Bronx to Connecticut was difficult, especially after breaking his leg and no longer being able to participate in track and field, which was the source of a scholarship. In addition to the emotional setback, the time in physical therapy has meant that Anthony needed to learn time management skills.

Overall, Anthony has had a positive college experience and is especially thankful that his professors have been such a source of support. He has switched majors from physical therapy to political science. He also continues to talk to his mentor, Jack, and they plan to see one another when Anthony is next back from school.