Grad Student Has Family Connection To Penguin Athletics

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Seeing that her older siblings Eleanna ’10 and David ’14 were standout student-athletes at Dominican University of California, the fact that Julianna Mendez ‘17, now a graduate student excelling in cross country, followed them to college has become a topic of conversation in the family.

“I think Dominican set all three of us up for success. The programs that we did study gave us the skills that we’re using now,” Juli says. “All three of our experiences were unique. I think each one of us would say we had the best Dominican experience.”

Juli's sister, Eleanna, now an RN at Sutter Health in Santa Rosa and an NP at Santa Rosa Junior College, was an All-American NAIA soccer player for the Penguins in 2008. Her brother, David, who recently accepted a job with the executive team at Teach For America based in Washington, D.C., was All-Pacific West Conference in soccer in NCAA Division II in 2011.

Juli works full-time as a kindergarten teacher in Windsor, and has done so for almost five years. She is back running cross country at Dominican while taking classes to earn a master’s degree in education with an emphasis on special education. Since the start of this season, she has been named PacWest Cross Country Athlete of the Week three times and, on October 23, she placed 17th overall in the PacWest Championships in Hawaii, competing against – and beating – runners who are as many as eight years younger than her.

Juli is indeed surprised at her success.

“It was very odd. My brother would joke and tell me I was a geriatric runner,” says Juli, who on November 6 earned NCAA All-West Region honors by finishing 10th – both firsts for Dominican's women's cross country – at the NCAA West Regional 56k at Ash Creek Preserve in Oregon. “It’s been a shock. I thought for some reason as you get older you get slower.”

Juli is certainly wiser. Prior to the pandemic she was training for a marathon, but her focus changed when she wanted to make a greater impact on her students in the classroom. She wanted to enhance her education and was looking to enroll in a masters’ program in early childhood special education.

“I realized after working in the field that as general education teachers we get a lot of students who do have special needs. In my experience in working with my students it would benefit me and my kids to have a better idea of how to best support them,” Juli says. “I just wanted to figure out how to best support the kids who come to me who are in full inclusion and receiving special services.”

Juli decided to text her former cross country coach at Dominican, Teressa DiPerna, to see if she could give Juli a recommendation. Teressa suggested she return to Dominican and the School of Liberal Arts and Education.

 “Do you want to run for us?” the Penguins coach said.

Juli, who had two semesters of NCAA athletic eligibility remaining, was intrigued by the idea. She then did some research and discovered Dominican’s MS in Education program could offer her what she was seeking – a master’s degree with an emphasis on special education.
The transition was almost seamless, and Juli felt like she was “back home.” She had been coming to Dominican before she was even a teenager to watch her sister and brother play soccer for the Penguins. When it came time for Juli to choose a college, she didn’t feel any pressure from her siblings to attend Dominican because she already had a sense of what it was about.

“Once I got here, I felt Dominican has such an amazing community. I feel like you can’t really find that elsewhere. It just seems like the kind of people – the professors – here it’s hard to come by in another program,” Juli says. “With Campus Ministry and the whole service aspect, Dominican’s core values really aligned with my core values. In the end that’s what ultimately brought me here to Dominican.”

And brought her back again. She is enrolled in two graduate courses as part of the Master of Science in Education program: Informal and Formal Assessment plus Research for Social Justice.

“Juli is passionate about working with children and demonstrates a commitment to understanding how best to support young learners,” says professor Katie Lewis, Director of the Multiple Subject Credential Program in the Department of Education.

“In her assessment course, she works closely with Dr. Zoe Bartholomew to understand how assessment guides a teacher's instruction. In Research for Social Justice, Juli is studying how policies related to the quality of early childhood education are implemented and funded in California. These courses are preparing Julie to design a thesis project, which serves as the culminating work for the Master of Science in Education program.”

That could happen in 2023. By then, Juli will have concluded her student-athlete experience.

Last week Juli traveled to Hawaii for the third time in her Penguins’ athletics career (once as a soccer player) and this spring she will serve as the foundation for Dominican’s new track and field team which begins competing in the PacWest.

“I love running and I love to teach,” Juli says. “With my MS in Education I will have more insight on how to best support my students and continue to enjoy my passion for running.”

Above photo of Julianna Mendez (Bib No. 247) leading group of runners at cross country meet in Golden Gate Park.

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