LEECH LAKE -- Jorge Mendoza didn’t have experience in academia prior to coming to Leech Lake Tribal College, but as it turns out, he didn’t need any.

His immigrant upbringing and military training have given him the tools to be an excellent motivator and thrive in his new role as the Dean of Student Affairs.

In his own words, Mendoza’s journey to northern Minnesota has been “full.”

“I was born in Mexico City and I was raised in Los Angeles,” he explained. “Early in my education and not speaking any English, I was that student that continuously fell behind and struggled,” he said.

Now, he sees himself in the students he helps to succeed.

While Mendoza is new to the dean position, he is not new to Leech Lake Tribal College, as he has been serving as the academic success counselor since 2017. Before this, he retired from a lengthy military career.

“Throughout my military career, I matured and developed the skills and desire to support and service my community,” he said. “So, the transition to mentoring, advising and caring for students seemed to be a perfect fit for someone that just spent decades doing similar tasks for soldiers.”

One of Mendoza’s first memories working at LLTC was when he told a man who had been placed on academic suspension that his appeal had been approved and he was going to be readmitted to the school. The man broke down and cried in front of him.

“And that to me, obviously coming from the military side, where you choke up on your tears and you carry on with your mission,” was new, he explained.

While he learned how to mentor and guide soldiers in the military, he didn’t find himself in touch with his compassionate side until he came to LLTC.

Now, Mendoza keeps tissues in his office fully stocked, because "someone’s always crying in there," he said laughing. “Not in a bad way, but because there is that level of --hopefully -- trust, they can open up to me, and obviously the heartache that comes with those situations.”

Much of his work as a counselor was with at-risk students, many who were facing addiction, homelessness, poverty, incarceration or domestic violence.

“I take care of the at-risk students, those coming back from suspension, those having a bad semester, trying to get them back on the right path,” he said. “As I was getting to talk to these students, the one thing that kept coming up was them having issues outside of school -- that’s why they were not showing up, that’s why they were having bad semesters.”

He said it helps to define what success means for these students. Sometimes, when going through a tough situation outside of school, just passing a class or getting through a semester can mean success.

He mentioned that due to the coronavirus pandemic students were given the option to take a "compassionate withdrawal" to drop a class without repercussions. Mendoza said in reviewing the withdrawals, many students dropped a couple of classes and remained in one, which to him, meant success.

“That is success. Not only are they dealing with losing their job, not being able to go outside, they still manage to take a class, and that’s what we wanted them to do,” he explained. “Sometimes success is getting through this type of semester.”

LTTC’s motto is come find your place, and it seems Mendoza has found his.