Resilience and close UAB friends helped Daniel Mendoza through his mother’s death in his sophomore year

In Saturday’s commencement ceremony, the UAB senior will carry the Honors College banner.

MendozaJoomlaDaniel MendozaMirna Pineda died from cancer before she could see her son graduate this week at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. But while in hospice, the 52-year-old Honduran native told her son, Daniel Mendoza, “Now I will have front-row seats.”

“She was a very religious Catholic,” said Mendoza, who will carry the UAB Honors College banner in the UAB spring commencement. “I know she is still proud of me, even though I changed my pathway at UAB.”

Pineda first had breast cancer when Mendoza was in kindergarten. Treatment with the then-experimental drug taxol put her in remission. The cancer returned when Mendoza was in seventh grade in Oak Grove, Mississippi, near Hattiesburg. Over the next seven years, the cancer spread and grew worse.

Pineda was a single parent, and Mendoza the only child at home. “We were very close,” Mendoza said. From all the trips to the hospital with his mother, Mendoza decided to become a doctor. He did an internet search as a high school sophomore and picked UAB as the place to go. It had medicine, small, interdisciplinary undergraduate classes in the University Honors Program of the UAB Honors College and the extra boon of UAB’s urban location near the center of Birmingham.

Chance changed his career plans after he arrived on campus.

The UABTeach program began during Mendoza’s freshman year. This program aims to nurture and train a new teaching force of highly qualified instructors in STEM subjects — science, technology, engineering and math.

Mendoza realized how his high school science teachers had pushed and encouraged him, and he found he was enjoying his work as a UAB teaching assistant in vertebrate zoology and environmental sciences. So he gave UABTeach a try. He got hooked.

Mendoza has now majored in biology — with minors in chemistry, international studies, STEM education and Spanish — and he has fulfilled the requirements for Alabama teacher certification. He has also taught or developed lesson plans in Rocky Ridge Elementary and Spain Park High in Hoover, Alabama; Gardendale High School and Bragg Middle School in Jefferson County, Alabama; and Ramsay High School in Birmingham.

A hard semester, then curiosity about the world

Mendoza was at Bragg Middle School the semester his mother died, one week after Labor Day in 2015. Three Theta Chi fraternity brothers at UAB and a UAB friend — Caleb Brasher, Kane Agan, Trey Turner and Nathan Wells — drove to Hattiesburg with Mendoza for the funeral.

“They were very supportive,” Mendoza said. “Even now, three and a half years later, they still check in with me to make sure I haven’t kept it inside.”

Additionally, Michael Sloane, Ph.D., director of the University Honors Program, came to Hattiesburg for the funeral. Later Mendoza took his mother’s ashes to Honduras, her homeland before she emigrated and became a U.S. citizen. The ashes were blessed at a church and scattered on a beach of the Caribbean Sea.

Mendoza returned to UAB; but the loss of his only close family member, the woman who had nurtured him through life, was hard. “After my mother died, I was very isolated,” Mendoza said. “I stayed in my dorm room, and for about a semester, I would not fully open up and talk about it. I was helped by one-on-one appointments with a counselor in Student Health Services.”

Oddly, the time he spent reflecting gave him more time to study, and that semester’s grades were his best at UAB.

Mendoza endured, and then thrived. He was president of Theta Chi. He went to the Rochester Institute of Technology for a summer program of Discipline-Based Education Research, funded by the National Science Foundation. His curiosity about the world has taken him to Dubai as a William Jefferson Clinton scholar and to Cuba with the Honors College.

With support and supervision from his faculty mentor, Samiksha Raut, Ph.D., assistant professor in the UAB Department of Biology, Mendoza this month traveled to the University of South Wales to present his work — an education project related to service-learning in a non-majors biology class — at the British Conference of Undergraduate Research. Mendoza also earned an honorable mention for this project from the Posters on the Hill research competition, held in Washington, D.C. He worked on the project as a Ronald E. McNair scholar at UAB, a program that prepares undergraduates for doctoral studies.

Mendoza holds a Gates Millennium Scholarship for outstanding minority students who have significant financial needs. The scholarship has paid for Mendoza’s college years, and it will be available to pay for master’s and Ph.D. study after Mendoza finishes a gap year working for the national Theta Chi Fraternity. During the year, he will teach risk management policy at Theta Chi chapters across the United States, which will also give him the chance to explore the nation of this first-generation American. He also cherishes his heritage — the saliva test that he sent to 23 and Me for ancestry testing showed he was 37.6 percent Mayan.

Saturday’s celebration may feel bittersweet, Mendoza says. But he says he will touch the pendant that hangs from his neck. It holds some of his mother’s ashes.

“She still,” Mendoza said, “is always with me.”