The first thing you’ll notice about first-generation student Steven Escobar-Mendez, ’22, is his contagious optimism, said his friend, Matthew Gunton, ’22.
“Steven has one of those great senses of humor,” Gunton said. “He’s always able to make certain situations funny and, just in general, see everything in the best possible light. When you’re around him, you can’t help but be in a good mood.”
This positive attitude, along with the support of friends and family, enabled Escobar-Mendez to overcome adversity and thrive both inside and outside the Lehigh classroom.
Escobar-Mendez was born in Washington, D.C. and grew up in a predominantly immigrant community.
Escobar-Mendez said the combination of this community and his family, both in the U.S. and Guatemala helped shape his worldview and establish three core values that would guide him for the rest of his life: God, family and countries.
Living in a community of immigrants also came with its challenges. Escobar-Mendez said nearly every weekend growing up, Immigration and Custom Enforcement agents would conduct raids in his neighborhood.
He recalled his family members attempting to comfort him by making a sort of game out of hiding from the ICE agents. Escobar-Mendez said he was almost deported at the age of eight, an experience that made him question what it meant to be a U.S. citizen.
He said these raids happened so frequently that they didn’t faze him.
“I remember one time me and my brother went to a McDonald’s, and they got the guy there,” Escobar-Mendez said. “At that time, sadly, I was numb to it. I was OK with it — like, this is life.”
Over the course of his childhood, Escobar-Mendez was separated from many of his friends and family members due to deportation, including a group of friends he referred to as his “brothers,” members of his church community and his grandparents.
Escobar-Mendez said he is only able to call his grandparents, who currently live in Guatemala, about once a year.
As one of the few U.S. citizens in his community, Escobar-Mendez said he often struggled with his identity. He said, although he aspired to fit the image of a U.S. citizen, he was judged by people outside his community because of his background and the fact his parents were immigrants. At the same time, he struggled with acceptance among the undocumented Hispanic community because of his citizenship.
“Growing up and going to school for the first time, I remember really wanting to wear the school uniform because I wanted to be like a U.S. citizen. I wanted to be a part of it,” Escobar-Mendez said. “Sadly, I wasn’t … I wasn’t considered a Hispanic by the Hispanics, and I wasn’t considered a U.S. (citizen) by the U.S. (citizens).”
Escobar-Mendez said he was determined to carry on his community’s legacy and keep their dream alive by being the first in his family to attend college and was encouraged to do so by his father, grandfather and brothers.
Escobar-Mendez said applying to Lehigh was a gamble, since it is a private school, but he enjoys taking risks.
After being accepted to Lehigh, Escobar-Mendez said he hitchhiked to catch a bus to campus because he hadn’t told his parents he was going.
“At the end of the day, you can’t open a door simply by asking it to. You have to push it open,” Escobar-Mendez said.
-Steven Escobar-Mendez, ’22
His friend, Adrian Suarez, ‘22, said, because of Escobar-Mendez’s friendliness and adventurous spirit, wild stories like this are the norm.
“He’s a great storyteller, and he’s had this really interesting life that’s full of movie-level epicness,” Suarez said.
Upon arriving at Lehigh, Escobar-Mendez said he was determined to help Lehigh as it had helped him.
Among other accomplishments, Escobar-Mendez was a part of the Mountaintop Beyond Bars project, participated in Lehigh’s Hatchery program, worked for the Lehigh Liners and currently works as a Gryphon.
Suarez said he was initially drawn to Escobar-Mendez because of his selflessness. The two had lived in the same first-generation themed housing during their freshman year, and Suarez said he noticed Escobar-Mendez consistently going out of his way to help others.
“The guy really has a heart to serve,” Suarez said. “He’s a go-getter, a real gentleman and really generous with his time. Overall, his character just shows.”
Escobar-Mendez said his two goals for the future are to visit his grandmother in Guatemala and attend law school.
He said he’s deciding between studying immigrant-indigenous law and international diplomacy because of his upbringing and hearing stories of family members fleeing war, poverty, violence and corruption.
“I want to help migrants in court,” he said. “I want to help combat the corruption in my homeland in a position that government officials cannot ignore.”