Two ceremonies in one day: Marcela Mendez works hard to become “dual” graduate

INA, Ill. (May 18, 2016) – Thanks to dual credit and dual enrollment classes – and a hyper focus on her future – Benton’s Marcela Mendez had the once-in-a-lifetime chance to walk across two stages Saturday to become a dual graduate of Rend Lake College and Benton Consolidated High School (BCHS).

Mendez is one of a handful of students who accomplish this goal by enrolling in college-level classes at RLC during her high school years. The dual credit and dual enrollment programs offer tuition-free courses with a reduced rate for textbook rental for all students in RLC’s district. In fact, during the 2014-15 academic year, approximately 2,845 students earned a total of 8,556 credit hours – saving over $800k in tuition alone.

For Mendez, the process began her sophomore year with a CPR class and only grew after that. The goal? To knock two years off her collegiate career all while saving money.

“I hit it hard my junior year with some general classes. I talked to Nicki Bowlin (former RLC Academic Advisor) and she told me how I could get college credit with some classes,” said Mendez. “I knew someone who graduated from RLC her senior year, and I asked her how she did it. She told me about dual enrollment, and I thought, ‘I can do that too,’ and I just jumped into it.”

And she wasn’t the only one. In 2014-15, when Mendez was a junior, BCHS juniors and seniors earned 1,677 credit hours, a total savings of $159,315 in tuition. This path led her right to RLC’s James “Hummer” Waugh Gymnasium Saturday afternoon to be recognized for two associate degrees from RLC, though she is finishing up two classes this summer on campus to complete the programs. With only one B on her college transcript among all As, Mendez said she’s glad to have completed her goal with hopes it will benefit her future education.

Grad2016 MarcelaMendezEricBlackWMendez accepts her RLC diploma from RLC Board of Trustees Chair Eric Black. Click on the image for a larger view.
(ReAnne Palmer / RLC Public Information)

“It was stressful because I play basketball and volleyball, plus I work for my parents and have a part-time job on the side. I’ve taken a lot of online classes to get them done and I went to campus quite a lot to talk to advisors about the next step. Thankfully, Rend Lake had good advisors who helped me along the way,” said Mendez. “My parents raised me to be very mature at a young age. I knew I could do this if I plan it out in a certain way, and it’s been a neat experience to have the opportunity to go this far at a young age. Hopefully it will be for the best.”

This fall, Mendez plans to attend either Millikin University of Southern Illinois University Carbondale to study bilingual education. Her dream is to work in translating or teaching English as a second language.

With two years of college under her belt, Mendez said this is where things begin to get difficult, especially in her family. As first generation college students, Mendez and her sister – former RLC tennis player and graduate Evelyn Mendez – are struggling with paperwork and financial aid applications at the higher education institutions as their parents work to become United States citizens.

“My parents are in the process of becoming legalized citizens. My sister and I are both wanting to go to a bigger university to continue on our education, but the universities are asking for verification documents, and it’s a struggle because we don’t have them,” said Mendez. “I have to jump in and see where it goes from here.”

She continued, “I want my sister and me to be the first generation college graduates in our family. My mom always wanted us to go to school because she didn’t have that opportunity in Mexico. It’s a different lifestyle and perspective there, so she wants us to keep going to get an education, to learn more in life, and to be something more. I couldn’t ask for better parents. They’ve always been there for us and given us guidance. It’s been a good four years of high school and I’m excited to keep going.”

MarcelaMendezBCHSgradWMendez poses for a photo with BCHS Principal Mark Miller after the graduation ceremony. Click on the image for a larger view.

And the hits don’t stop here. Last fall, Mendez was being recruited by Millikin University to play both basketball and volleyball when tragedy struck. With a back injury during her basketball season, Mendez is still working in physical therapy to get back on the court.

“It’s one of those struggles in life. I accept that’s not what my life was meant to be, but I’m still trying to get healed up in physical therapy and keep myself healthy,” said Mendez. “Millikin gave me an academic scholarship and they’re offering to do a student coaching position, but tuition costs so much at private universities. It’s disappointing and frustrating, but I’m going to keep knocking on doors and hoping things will work out.”

Tuition, or the lack thereof, was one of the biggest factors in her enrollment into dual credit and dual enrollment classes at RLC, Mendez said.

“One big benefit [of taking dual credit and dual enrollment classes] was they were so much cheaper than I would’ve gotten otherwise. The tuition was waived, so I only had book fees. I’m very thankful for all the help I received because school is so expensive,” said Mendez.

To her fellow students, she wants to be the one who talks about dual enrollment and dual credit to encourage others to make the most of their high school experience.

“Benton High School is a small school, but if you talk to the right people and take advantage of what there is to offer, you can do it. I had the opportunity to have a lot of teachers who are full of good advice. I asked a million questions and it’s taken me this far,” said Mendez. “Take advantage of these opportunities when you’re young and have the chance to learn more in life.”

She added, “It’s a hard and grueling process, and it will take a while to get where you want to go, but my parents raised me to work hard in life. The sooner you start, the more mature you become and the more successful you can become. Then, one day, you’ll not have a job, but something you want to do every single day. It’s a different perspective and outlook on life, but completely worth it.”

Lisa Price, Vice President of Student Services, echoed Mendez when she spoke of her continuous hard work through high school.

“Marcie is an exceptional young lady, who is making things happen for herself. Because of her diligence and hard work, she will continue to go places,” said Price. “She’s a testament to the dual credit and dual enrollment programs because she made them work for her.”

To learn more about RLC’s dual credit and dual enrollment programs, contact Academic Advisement at 618-437-5321, Ext. 1266.

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