STEMS Mentor Club member ventures north to Alaska for summer internship

Brittany Mendez, a UTRGV senior English major and president of the STEMS Mentor Club, spent the summer as an intern at the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward, Alaska, an experience that she says changed her life. (UTRGV Courtesy Photo)

By Cheryl Taylor

RIO GRANDE VALLEY, TEXAS – SEPT. 22, 2015 – Brittany Mendez, a senior English major at The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, spent the past summer more than 3,000 miles from home – as an intern at the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward, Alaska.

Mendez says it was a pivotal way to reconcile literature and life experience.

“I look at my major as a gateway to a variety of opportunities,” she said. “Reading Jack London’s ‘Call of the Wild’ is one thing. But to actually be in the center of it all added a whole other dimension to my adventure. My summer at the Alaska SeaLife Center was such an eye opener for me.”

Her time at the state’s only public aquarium and ocean wildlife rescue center was split between aviary husbandry duties – caring for puffins, kittiwakes, ducks, murres, guillemots and auklets – and being a guide and interpreter, leading tours through the facility to educate visitors on the Alaska SeaLife Center and its four areas of focus: education, conservation, research and rehabilitation.

The roots of Mendez’s adventure can be traced to the summer before her sophomore year at San Benito High School.

“I enrolled in the STEMS (South Texas Engineering, Mathematics and Science) Summer Program. I had no idea what it was, but I was willing to try something new,” she said.

Every day for two weeks, Mendez and the STEMS group were bused to the then-University of Texas at Brownsville/Texas Southmost College, where they spent full days participating in STEM [Science, Technology Engineering and Mathematics] activities led by members of the UTB/TSC STEMS Mentor Club.

“I learned so much during those two weeks – botany, marine science, birding, photography, wetland ecology, camping, kayaking, fishing and archery. It was amazing,” she said. “That experience that summer was significant in my development.”

Throughout the following three years in high school, Mendez remained an active member of the club, interacting with university student volunteers trained to engage K-12 students in activities and field experiences to support STEMS Program goals.

“The STEMS Club at San Benito High School sparked initiative, self-confidence, assertiveness, determination and it motivated us to be better, to aim higher,” she said.

Now, as a student at UTRGV and president of the STEMS Mentor Club, Mendez is providing high school students with exploration experiences similar to those she experienced in high school.

Javier Garcia, director of STEM Community Outreach Programs in the UTRGV Department of Community Relations, said Mendez is a model of the success of the program.

“She was one of the kids that experienced our program as a high school mentee, getting out of the classroom and going on field trips and learning through hands-on activities with university mentors,” he said. “Now Brittany and others are completing the circle, engaging K-12 students in exciting adventures in the STEM world.”

After a successful freshman year at UTB/TSC, Mendez spent the summer of 2014 as an intern at Estero Llano Grande State Park in Weslaco, where she led tours and hikes, identified birds and plants for visitors, collected invasive plant data and assisted with maintenance and landscaping.

Toward the end of the summer, she and 18 other STEMS Mentor Club members and three advisors took off on “the adventure of a lifetime” – Alaska, for two weeks.

They picked up three rented RVs in Anchorage and set out overland, camping along the way. They visited Denali National Park, Kenai Fjords National Park, and the cities of Valdez, Homer and Seward.

Their last stop, Seward, is a small town and home to the Alaska SeaLife Center.

“The day that I walked into Alaska SeaLife Center, my life was changed forever,” Mendez said. “I remember walking into the aviary, seeing the puffins, and right then and there my heart was sold. I was so astonished by the sights. I knew I’d be back again someday.”

When Mendez got home, she focused on getting an internship with the Alaska SeaLife Center for the following summer. Months of paperwork and phone interviews later, the good news arrived: She had been selected as an intern.

Using her savings over the past year, and with help from family and friends, Mendez flew out in June on her second Alaskan adventure.

Mendez’s special visitors over her internship summer were 14 students and four mentors from the UTB/TSC (now UTRGV) STEMS Club at Lasara High School, who were on a project-based learning trip to Alaska that was subsidized by the Lasara Independent School District.
“This group was following in pretty much the same footsteps that my trip had taken the summer before, and they were experiencing the same amazement and sensory overload that I had felt,” she said.

“We grow up familiar with our surroundings, comfortable in South Texas, and we rarely stop to think about other places, people and the animals. Travel and new experiences help us gain perspective.”

Home for the summer was the Alaska SeaLife Center intern dormitory, where Mendez roomed with three girls, from Illinois, Minnesota and Virginia.

“They were all wonderful,” Mendez said. “We were so different, either in culture, beliefs or educational paths, but we understood that we were all there for a purpose.

“It was meaningful to be a part of something so big, coming together with such a diverse group to successfully work together,” she said. 

 

ABOUT THE STEMS PROGRAM

The STEMS Program began in 1989 and partners with area school districts to boost interest in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields. Other partners include NASA and Texas Parks & Wildlife Department.

The STEMS Mentor Club provides opportunities for college students to be involved with K-12 students and communities by assisting with all STEMS Outreach Program goals and objectives. Club members receive training for all events, activities and field experiences to support all STEMS activities.

Aside from facilitating the STEMS Summer Program, the STEMS Mentor Club members participate in a variety of STEMS Program events throughout the year that are made possible by grants and business sponsors. These include the STEMS Outdoor Expo, RGV Regional Science & Engineering Fair, NASA Space Science Days and the STEMS 5K & 1-Mile Run every October.

Schools currently collaborating with the UTRGV STEMS Outreach Program include La Feria High School, Lasara High School, San Benito High School and Santa Rosa High School.

Many students who are part of the program in high school eventually join the university-level program as they select a major. University STEMS mentors have led outdoor science and educational trips in the past for high school students to Big Bend National Park, Grand Canyon National Park, Yosemite National Park, Yellowstone National Park, and now, Alaska.

MEDIA CONTACTS

Marci.Caltabiano@UTRGV.edu
UTRGV Director of News and Internal Communications
956-665-2742

Jennifer.McGehee@UTRGV.edu
UTRGV Director of Public Relations
956-882-5105