A desire to educate and inspire young people took Antonio Mendez ’06 to a country where only a quarter of the population of 70,000 is native, everyone is trilingual, and the president can be seen—unescorted—ordering at KFC.
Mendez spent a year as a Fulbright Fellow in Andorra, the tiny principality in the Pyrenees between France and Spain. A New Yorker and one of Colby’s first Posse Scholars, he was a social studies teacher in a high school in the capital city of Andorra la Vella. And he quickly saw that Andorra was in many ways a much smaller version of the United States. “To me Andorra represents what America represents,” he said, via Skype video from Andorra. “This is a nation of immigrants.”
Most of the immigrants to Andorra are Portuguese, he said, and many of his students were ethnically Portuguese born in the Catalan-speaking country where their parents had moved to find jobs. “They have this thing that first-generation Americans have,” Mendez said.
It’s a population that he knows well, as a second-generation Latino, Colby Posse Scholar (a program that selects high-achieving students from public schools), and former Teach for America teacher, and Posse mentor for Posse New York, one of his several alma maters.
An American Studies major, with minors in government and theater, Mendez joined Teach for America after Colby and was assigned to an elementary school in Newark. He left that job after a year (changes at the school moved him from the classroom to a job handing out student suspensions), and returned to the Posse Foundation’s New York office, where he was a mentor to three Posse groups selected to attend Brandeis University. The last was a Posse concentrating on hard sciences. “They’re my pride and joy,” Mendez said.
While at Posse, he applied for a Fulbright fellowship, first to teach in Spain. He was not selected and reapplied for Andorra—and applied to law schools as well. “I figured I’d cast a wide net,” Mendez said.
He was awarded the Fulbright—and was accepted at eight law schools. He has just begun his law studies at the University of Denver, which deferred his enrollment so he could go to Andorra and teach—under the pseudonym, Anthony Mendell.
That was the name given Mendez by an administrator, who was concerned that his students, upon learning that Mendez was Hispanic, would speak Spanish with him, not English.
Teaching as Senor Mendell was just the beginning of Andorra’s surprises.
Mendez said he was amazed at the country’s smallness and informality. The prime minister does indeed walk down the streets without an official escort, he said. The national archives is located in a walk-in closet. The country has two princes, one a bishop and the other the president of France. Neither lives in Andorra.
But Mendez said the most surprising part of his stay in Andorra La Vella was his high school students. “I’m used to my narrative of Posse and Colby,” he said. “If you work hard enough and if you try, there’s a way.”
That concept was as foreign to his Andorran students as his American hip-hop music.
“Here you’re taught, ‘You know who your parents are, you know what you can achieve. Stay within your social circle,” Mendez said. “They don’t care about school. This is about socializing.”
So he used his own life as an example, telling students that hard work opened doors for him, and a few took his message to heart, he said. “They saw it as very cool that [Americans] even have that attitude.”
Mendez taught traditions of America, England, Ireland, and Andorra. He also introduced his teenaged students to contemporary music (they listen to American music from the 60s and 70s) and recent hip hop, and they took to repeating words they heard in the lyrics. “I cringe,” he said. “I say, ‘Please don’t go to New York and say that.”
Mendez did return to New York in July, to prepare for starting law school in August. And he returned with a new appreciation for his home, he said. “It’s only when you leave that you think, Oh, my country is so amazing. For all of its faults, it really is an amazing country.”