Cracking students’ shells: Lois Mendez-Catlin ’80 inspires Florida youth to think big

Lois Mendez-Catlin ’80
Lois Mendez-Catlin ’80

On the Gulf of Mexico, tucked away on the Florida Panhandle, is the quiet, seaside community of St. James. Lois Mendez-Catlin ’80 never expected to end up in St. James and certainly doesn’t know a lot about the town’s top industry, oyster harvesting. 

What she did know was that change was needed, after she noticed that the community’s youth received little support, eschewing education for the murky waters filled with mollusks.

“People from St. James are born there, they live there and they die there,” says Mendez-Catlin. “The young students needed a lot of help.”

With a lifetime of experience in education, Mendez-Catlin set out to crack open the students’ shells. For roughly 10 years, she has directed Renovatio Youth Leadership Program, which gives underrepresented high school students from Franklin County the opportunity to set personal and career goals by engaging them in experiences designed to help them see college as a real possibility. She regularly travels with these students to visit college campuses, college fairs, museums and historical sites, hoping to broaden their horizons, all while opening their eyes to opportunities beyond their small town.  

And she’s found some pearls: In 2016, five of the students from the program will be heading to four-year colleges, including one who is expected to graduate as valedictorian. She’s also combined Renovatio with the program Take Stock in Children at the county’s only public school.  The program provides mentoring and academic support for students, as well as scholarship incentives to attend Florida’s state colleges and universities.

Her efforts, however, have come at a cost. Mendez-Catlin said she’s been called an “outsider,” “aggressive” and “hostile” by the residents who worry that their children will fail when they leave Franklin County to go off to college. Over time, though, she said she has seen a change in the students’ attitudes.

“I see the kids developing more of their voices with me, becoming more independent and challenging what used to be ‘tradition’ or ‘expected’ or ‘acceptable.’ I raised my son to question everything, to think critically and back up what he believed with proof that he was right. Now, he’s a recent law school graduate. That’s the kind of young person I want Renovatio to produce.”

Mendez-Catlin has dedicated her life to education, starting at Connecticut College where she worked as a student-teacher in the New London schools. The experience taught her she wasn’t a good fit as a high school teacher, but that a relationship with more mature students — college students — was a better one. She went on to earn two master’s degrees from Columbia University, one in developmental education and another in educational psychology, before pursuing her doctorate in higher education administration.

She eventually headed to Bryn Mawr College to work in the undergraduate dean’s office, where she saw firsthand how the division handled every aspect of a student’s college experience. Mendez-Catlin says it was that experience that inspired her to do what she’s doing now.

“It opened my eyes to what it’s like being on the other side of the desk and what college students go through,” she says. “Now, I tell the students there is nothing you can tell me that I haven’t seen or heard before.”  She believes they are trying to test that theory.  “Education is a true calling with intrinsic rewards.  When it is apparent that a person’s lightbulb has turned on, that is my biggest joy.”

January 28, 2015