If there’s one thing Edgar Mendez ’12 has learned through his job at the Cascade AIDS Project, it’s that HIV does not discriminate.
“It’s not just gay or queer people. It’s not just people of color,” Mendez says. “That’s why it’s so important for people to hear from others who look like them, who’ve had similar experiences and who understand their challenges.”
Since graduating from Willamette University, Mendez has worked as a youth technology specialist for the Portland-based nonprofit. There, he helps coordinate peer mentorship programs, he engages in discussions about sexuality and medical care, and he spearheads media outreach efforts.
He learned many of his skills as a Willamette University student, when he interned at the Oregon State Capitol. To this day, he credits that experience with helping to shape his career.
“Willamette’s integration with the capitol brings really unique value to the politics program, in terms of internships, professional development and leadership opportunities,” Mendez says.
“When politics is tangible, it’s easier to develop a more complete understanding of what citizenship means and what it looks like in action. I find tremendous value in that, and it’s an attitude I’ve tried to perpetuate in my own work.”
Delving into Public Advocacy
Mendez says Willamette exposed him to ways of life and thinking he would never have accessed elsewhere. From his association with Campus Democrats and Phi Delta Theta to working as a legislative aide for former Rep. Ben Cannon, D-Portland, Mendez says Willamette taught him the importance of critical thinking.
“Willamette is a place that forces you to ask questions, of yourself, your peers and your community at large,” says Mendez, who majored in politics. “Every day, I am reminded to be humble about what I know, to think critically about assumptions I make and to make conscious choices about what matters to me.”
As a student, Mendez became known for his passion for politics and social advocacy. Politics professor Sammy Basu says Mendez was not only studious and well prepared, he wryly argued for his perspective in class.
“He came to Willamette interested to learn more about the ways in which politics structures society,” says Basu, who was named 2013 Oregon Professor of the Year. “I found Edgar to have a very sophisticated and engaged mind.”
Salome Chimuku ’12, a fellow politics major, says Mendez was a practical optimist who readily solved problems thrown at him. Since graduating, she says he’s evolved into someone interested in discovering how interpersonal relationships and the environment affect people’s lives.
“He is extremely passionate, and it shows in just about everything he does,” says Chimuku, who works as the public policy director for the Center for Intercultural Organizing in Portland. “He stands by his values with strong conviction and is someone you want on your side.”
Discovering his Purpose
During his first year at Willamette, Mendez interned at the Cascade AIDS Project, an organization that works to prevent HIV infections and support people affected and infected by HIV and AIDS. Through that experience, he gained a sense of purpose.
“I was able to practice my skills, meet and engage with people and see what’s happening pertaining to prevention awareness,” he says about his summer experience. “I was given the time and space to do this sort of work, which was really useful later on.”
Mendez has since worked for the Cascade AIDS Project for two years as a full-time employee. Through his job, he regularly meets with students, people experiencing homelessness and youths in corrections to talk about everything from HIV and sexuality to healthy relationships, equity and navigating health systems.
Mendez says his purpose is to listen with an open mind and provide people with the services they need.
“If somebody is struggling to figure out where they are going to sleep tonight, their HIV status will not be their top priority,” he says. “You want to be a service provider who can solve a problem — whether that’s connecting them to community partners or sharing a meal at our drop-in time.”
Making a Difference
What Mendez says he enjoys most about his work is the chance to empower volunteers to take action — such as through organizing workshops at a convention or becoming leaders on community advisory boards.
“My work is really meaningful, really valuable,” he says. “When I’m able to give some agency over a program to a volunteer, to someone who is affected and who wants to see something done, that feels right.”
What frustrates him, however, is the heightened stigma and fear that surrounds HIV and AIDS.
“You still hear people talking about getting it from a toilet seat,” he says. “You still hear people say they don’t want to be around people who are HIV-positive. That makes it very difficult to have conversations about HIV and the importance of getting tested.”
Inspired by the rewards and challenges of his job, Mendez intends to earn his Master of Public Health degree within the next five years. Afterward, he hopes to work as a health care administrator, such as for a hospital, a network provider or a social support agency.
“I want to be involved in rationalizing their systems, advocating for them and articulating their priorities,” he says. “I want to spend more time delivering services.”