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When Moses Mendoza walked into his first school room in southeast Texas, he was nine years old, spoke only Spanish, and had never stepped foot outside the small rural town where he was born. The eldest son of a farm laborer, he had a rude awakening as he adjusted to this new world and the new language that awaited him there. But adjust he did, and in fact, he excelled. Today, Moses has his Master of Arts in Teaching from WGU Texas, and was selected in 2011 as the Army’s Cadet Command JROTC Instructor of the Year in the nation. It’s been a journey in leadership, learning, and compassion that spanned two continents and 30 years, most of it in one 1954 Chevrolet.
His brother (Robert) remembers those early years when Moses, dwarfed by the big iron bridge he had to cross to get to school each day, would take exaggerated giant steps across the bridge, a little tyke wearing a backpack with a picture of the world on it, he was eager to learn.
By seventh grade, Moses was working to support his family of seven brothers and sisters. Completing high school at 20, he enlisted in the Army. “The last thing I really wanted to do was enlist, but I had discovered a passion for education, and I knew I wanted to go to college,” he said. ”The only way I could figure out to make that happen was to enlist for four years and get the GI Bill® to pay my tuition,” explains Moses. His bus ride to basic training in Missouri was the first time he had ever ridden on a bus, and the first time he had been more than 50 miles from his birth place. The world got bigger. From basic training, he was took his first airplane ride, and was stationed in Germany outside Frankfurt. It was the mid-1970s and the military life in Germany was a rowdy experience most days. In his first week there, he and several other soldiers took a two-hour train ride to attend the first music concert of his life with The Who performing. Unfortunately, he got separated from his companions and ended up relying on the kindness of German strangers to find his way back to base the next day. “From that point I started really making the most of my time there. I started college classes, and on days off I would go off base to explore the country side. A new world opened up to me,” he recalls. In that world he also met and fell in love with a young German woman named Claudia.
A couple of years passed, and nearing the end of that first tour, Moses returned home to Texas for a few days. Intent on buying his first car before he and his fiancée were to be married, he was on his way to the Ford Dealership when he saw a ‘54 Chevy for sale by the side of the road. “I never really got the old car thing,” he said. “But Claudia just loved old cars, and I loved Claudia. I bought the car on the spot from a guy just getting out of the Navy and starting a family.” Claudia arrived the following month and they were married and stationed in Fort Campbell, Kentucky, and later at Fort Hood in Killeen. “After some time in Texas, we were given the opportunity to go back to Germany for another tour. We jumped on that.” So he, Claudia, their new baby girl, and the ‘54 Chevy made their way to Germany.
Moses completed four tours in Germany, raising two girls (one of whom was born there), and in between he, Claudia, the girls, and the Chevy all came home to the United States.
Stateside he wanted to continue his education and planned to settle in Texas, but he did not get the ROTC duty assignment he anticipated at Texas A&M or UT Austin. Instead, he was given priority status and assigned to Boston University. The university liked his leadership style and wanted him training others. Moses ironically notes that he trained his future bosses in the Reserved Officers’ Training Corps. He learned faculty could get free tuition, and decided to become a full-time student at Boston University in addition to full-time ROTC trainer, and full-time husband and father. “I was 37 years old, sitting in a class with a bunch of really smart young people. I decided if I was going to compete, I had to buckle down and apply my leadership training. I started hosting study groups since I had my own office on campus. It was great I was popular since I had a copy machine! I invited the smartest kids to join in. We called them Brain Sessions.” Soon the faculty were asking him to guest teach classes on leadership or character development. Meanwhile, inspired by his success, Claudia enrolled at the University of Massachusetts and got her teaching certification. The two enjoyed scenic New England and the peaceful brownstones of the campus for the time they were there, but were ready to come home to Texas when the opportunity arose.
When it came time to return to the Valley, Moses and Claudia had jobs before ever crossing the Texas state line. Moses taught kids in the alternative school program a program designed for high school students who had behavioral problems and were taken out of class. “That was fun,” he said. “I just created a structured environment for them and got them back on track,” he said. “I always say if you want to really learn, listen to the kids in your class. They have some brilliant ideas. They’re smart, and they can be leaders,” he said. Ends up cars are not all that Moses restores to their full potential.
Still passionate about education, Moses decided to earn a master’s degree. He didn’t want to make the commute required to do an on-campus program. He found WGU Texas. “I loved WGU all the resources are there and I can do it from my home. They give you what you need to plan your education and to succeed. My advice to anyone is don’t wait just do this. You’ll have a mentor who guides you and takes care of you each step of the way. Just keep asking what’s next and you’ll reach your personal goals.”
With his master’s degree in hand Moses now teaches the juniors and seniors at Harlingen High School in the Junior ROTC program. He likes involving them with the old cars he has come to love. “I like to involve the kids in setting up the two big car shows in McAllen and downtown Harlingen. They have fun and it’s a good service learning experience for them. They meet a lot of people from all over since we have so many 'winter Texans' that time of year in the Valley.” Moses is president of the Rio Grande Valley Antique Automobile Club of America. In addition to the '54 Chevy, he and Claudia also motor around in a restored 1926 Ford Model T.
When asked what advice he would have for someone similar to him 40 years ago, he is clear on the response: “I tell them all, get outside your comfort zone and do this. Get an education. Broaden your horizons. Go see some of the world. I don’t push the military on them it’s not for everyone. But they can all be leaders. I love working with these kids, they keep me young. The morning I wake up and don’t want to go to work, I’ll get a new job. I don’t see that coming anytime soon.”
So, while not far geographically from the old iron bridge spanning the Brazos River he crossed long ago, the boy with the backpack with a picture of the world on it has come a long way.
GI Bill® is a registered trademark of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). More information about education benefits offered by VA is available at the official U.S. government Web site at www.benefits.va.gov/gibill.
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