Knowing God's Love through Catholic Education
“Esta educación que has obtenido es para las personas que servirás con todo lo que Dios te ha dado, mija.”
When Jacqueline Mendez, a member of the Mary Ann Remick Leadership Program, graduated from Loyola University Chicago with a master’s degree in social work, her grandfather was there to remind her what her education was all about.
“My grandfather said to me in Spanish, ‘This degree is not for you. It is for all the people that you will serve with this degree and with everything that God has given you,’” Jacqueline recalls. “I continue to think about that, and his words have always stuck with me.”
For Jacqueline, a counselor at Sacred Heart Nativity School in San Jose, California, Catholic education is part of the fabric of her family and their traditions.
Her grandparents emigrated from Mexico to the United States and settled in South Chicago, where Jacqueline grew up.
“My grandparents didn’t have any family in the area, so the church became an extension of their family,” Jacqueline says. “It was important to my grandparents that their children, and now grandchildren, come to know God’s love through Catholic education.”
Jacqueline went to Our Lady of Guadalupe School and Saint Ignatius College Prep and completed both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Loyola University Chicago. Her experience at a Jesuit high school and college taught her about caring for the whole person, which led her to fall in love with the profession of social work.
“Social workers are grounded in systems theory, which is basically looking at the entire person and caring for the whole person,” she says. “If I’m working with students who are struggling academically, I look at who they are and all the different pieces of their life so that I can better understand them and work with them.”
In addition to caring for the whole person, Jacqueline has also been formed by the Jesuit value of being a person “for and with others.” “I feel very blessed to be in community with students who look like me and who are growing up how I grew up,” Jacqueline says. “It’s one of the biggest blessings of my life to be able to work in a Jesuit school, and my students are the biggest blessing and the biggest joy in my life.”
The past year in particular caused Jacqueline to reflect on what it means to care for the whole person. “The pandemic has hit communities of color the hardest, and we’re all going through this racial reckoning in America. It has really impacted and caused a need for healing in our communities of color,” she says. “I think of the way that Jesus was present with his disciples, the way that Jesus was present with everyone. I tell my students, ‘You have so much on your shoulders, you carry so much that I can’t carry for you, but I can sit with you and if you need me to, I can carry you.”
Jacqueline’s own experiences as a student growing up shaped her desire to become a leader in Catholic schools. “When I was in school I didn’t have very many role models. There weren’t very many people who looked like me or grew up like me,” Jacqueline says. “As a Latina and as a woman of color, I know what our students of color are shouldering, and it is really important to me that all students have the opportunity to have mirrors, to see themselves in positions of leadership. I really feel that God is calling me to be that mirror.”
For Jacqueline, the desire to be an example for students is one of the primary reasons why she wants to become a school leader, a desire which she is realizing through her participation in the Remick Leadership Program. As a member of the 19th cohort and as a Sobrato Family Fellow, Jacqueline is able to bring her passions, talents, and experiences to the table.
“I hope to contribute the cultural understanding that I have to create more culturally-responsive, trauma-informed, restorative justice-focused schools that are strengths-based,” Jacqueline adds. “That’s a place where I can bring in my cultural understanding and my background to shape schools that serve students of color.”
In her day-to-day work with students this year, Jacqueline has focused on building community. “I do the morning drop-off routine, and we’ve had the tradition of eighth-grade students welcoming students and shaking the younger students’ hands,” Jacqueline says. “That looks different this year, so I’ve worked with the eighth graders to empower them to take on the tradition in a different way.”
“The in-person students are outside every morning cheering students on with me, and the distance-learning eighth graders will welcome everyone through the chat,” Jacqueline says. “They’ll write things like, ‘good morning,’ ‘welcome,’ ‘it’s so great to see you.’”
This year has stretched Jacqueline to find new ways of supporting students and families. “As a social worker, there are many times when my immediate reaction to a situation is to question how I can fix it,” Jacqueline says. “The reality, especially this year, is that sometimes there are no solutions and I have to remember that Jesus is with us, God is accompanying us. I tell my students all the time, ‘My whole job is to care about you,’ and sometimes that just means listening.”
Although the work is challenging, Jacqueline consistently turns to the faith that her parents, grandparents, and Catholic education instilled in her. “It’s hard to not have answers, but it’s comforting to know that you’re not alone and that you have a community of people you can turn to,” Jacqueline says. “I’m really grateful for my faith and that’s a gift from my parents and grandparents. I often think of the Father Greg Boyle quote: ‘God protects me from nothing but sustains me in everything.’”
Learn more about the Mary Ann Remick Leadership Program at ace.nd.edu/leadership.