MERIDEN — Focus and determination helped Laura Mendez finish top in her class at Wilcox Technical High School, despite her father’s absence and financial concerns.
”I really thought that class ranks were in the movies,” Mendez said. “I found out in sophomore year I was second in my class. That motivated me a lot toward working hard. It pushed me to be better.”
Mendez is the valedictorian for the Class of 2019, which graduates on Monday.
Mendez, who studied for a medical technician certification, will be attending UConn on a full tuition scholarship and hopes to become a pediatric neurosurgeon.
Support from her church, family, friends and teachers helped her get through the difficulty of realizing her father, an illegal immigrant who went to Mexico to bury a relative, could not return to the U.S. when she was 15.
“He makes sure I stay in touch,” Mendez said. “He kind of pushes me to do good in school even though he’s not here.”
Since learning in her sophomore year that she was second in the class, Laura Mendez has checked her student ranking every month. Last year, she got a job at Walgreen’s but quit in February to concentrate on her schoolwork.
“She is one of the hardest working students I’ve had,” said Peg Sonntag who had Mendez in her early college experience courses in history and civil law. “She is quiet and deliberate. She was the plaintiff in our mock trial, so she has this acting ability too. She pushes herself to succeed.”
A former Washington Middle School student, Mendez chose Wilcox after consulting with her mother. They knew the school was good, and would enable her to have a good job while she attends college.
Working in retail helped Mendez learn more about herself and define her career choice. The oldest of two siblings, and another on the way, children will always be a big part of her life and career.
Mendez’s work experience “taught me how to manage work and school,” she said, a skill she will need in college. Mendez expects to work during her four years at Storrs and into medical school.
Mendez only knew one person when she arrived at Wilcox, a cousin who helped her find her way around. She’s also grateful to the guidance counselors who showed her the opportunities available for high-achievers. After a few years, she made more friends who supported her.
“They kept me motivated and encouraged,” she said. “I don’t want high school to end. A lot of friends are going to different places. It’s kind of scary. I will miss my teachers. I feel like they helped me be a better student.”
Mendez accepted UConn’s offer over others because it meant her mother would not have to borrow large sums on her behalf.
“That’s a weight lifted off her shoulder,” Mendez said. “She wanted me to go where I wanted to go.”
Attending UConn is daunting but she said the diversity at Wilcox prepared her to meet a wide range of students.
“I’m nervous, but going to UConn is like going to another Wilcox,” she said. “I’ll be ready.”
This summer, she hopes to find a job at a daycare center, get her license and visit her father in Mexico, if not this year, then next year.
“She has a big heart,” Sonntag said. “In some ways she’s a leader. But she doesn’t do it by standing out in front. She’s someone who builds teams.”