Double Discovery Center Mentor Anthonella Fabiana Mendoza Empowers Local Youth to Embrace Authenticity
For Ecuadorian-born, South Carolina-raised Columbia student Anthonella Fabiana Mendoza (CC'25), the importance of embracing your roots and owning the power of authenticity is a valuable life lesson she strives to pass on to future generations of scholars. While coming of age in the South, she often felt like she had to assimilate to fit in and find community—at times inadvertently drifting away from her culture.
Now, as a mentor at Columbia's Double Discovery Center—a program designed to eradicate barriers to higher education for local first-generation and low-income youth—she's on a mission to show students the key to success in education and beyond lies in having a sense of pride in who you are and where you're from, and showing up as your whole self in spaces where you might be underrepresented.
We spoke with Mendoza about her upbringing, her involvement with DDC, and how mentorship can change the trajectory of a student's path.
How did your childhood influence your path in youth empowerment?
I didn’t realize a lot of the difficulties I had growing up in South Carolina until I came to New York to go to college. I was tracked for academically gifted and talented programs, and that led to me being in spaces where I was the only Spanish speaker, immigrant, or Latina in any classroom that I was in. These experiences caused a disconnect from my Ecuadorian culture. I felt at times I was starting to lose a little bit of all that I appreciated about my culture. There was a tension within myself of being proud of my culture and adapting to the community in South Carolina. There’s been a lot of growth for me since then, and now I can return to South Carolina with a sense of pride for my Ecuadorian roots.
When was the first time in your journey that you experienced the power of mentorship?
The summer before my senior year in high school, I received a call from the nonprofit Matriculate, a national organization that offers free college advising for students. They invited me to apply and join, and eventually, I was paired with a college student who went to Princeton for a mentorship. When it was time to apply to college, the guidance counselors at my school really only encouraged students to apply to institutions within the state. When I started to receive college guidance through my mentor, she helped me realize that I did have options outside of what was normally being done at my high school, which changed everything for me.
What is your definition of a mentor?
What makes a mentor a great one is continuously validating where a student or a mentee is at in their journey. Mentorship is a collaboration between a mentor and a mentee where the mentor is doing the listening most of the time. Whenever a mentor listens and lets the mentee share all of their experiences—including hardships and successes that they’ve had—it’s important to reaffirm them and let them know they do deserve to be in the spaces where they might not often see themselves reflected.
What makes a mentor a great one, is continuously validating where a student or a mentee is at in their journey.
What inspired you to get involved with DDC?
I first heard about the Double Discovery Center in the Spring of 2023, through this course I took at Columbia called "Equity and Access in Higher Education." One component of the class was to volunteer with the DDC for around four or more hours a week. I was paired with two high school juniors as their mentor, and I still keep up with those students to this day. It’s a full-circle experience because I’m providing them with the same support I received when navigating high school and the pre-college journey.
From your perspective, what are the road blocks youth in communities like Harlem and Washington Heights face around accessibility to mentoring programs?
One pretty major thing that a lot of the students I’ve worked with throughout my time here have shared is how difficult it is to receive attention or help from their guidance counselors. Oftentimes, they say they’re always so busy and can never find a time to meet with them. I’ve heard students say their guidance counselors or teachers have discouraged them from applying to programs that can offer them pathways to higher education. That has been very disheartening to hear. Sometimes youth feel pressured to stay within certain levels, and that doesn’t allow them to reach their full potential.
How is DDC filling the gap when it comes to ensuring higher education is accessible for first-generation students?
The Double Discovery Center shows youth that they’re deserving of resources and opportunities by cultivating an environment of empowerment. Sometimes, I see new students come in and they seem very shy because all of the students are coming from different high schools, but as they go through classes together, they start sharing different scholarship opportunities and resources, which I think is really awesome to see. Sometimes it’s not even the adults in the room who are facilitating these connections, it’s the students themselves who are really building community.
DDC is providing an amazing model for support and healthy communication. The students come out of the program feeling confident not only in the expanded knowledge they’ve garnered through the program’s offerings but also in the experiences they already had before going to DDC.
Sometimes it’s not even the adults in the room who are facilitating these connections, it’s the students themselves who are really building community.
Any book recommendations for young scholars and students?
As an English major, I’ve encountered so many amazing texts and authors, but my favorite book that I love to recommend is Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. I would also say The Privileged Poor by Anthony Abraham Jack, which I read in my "Equity and Access in Higher Education" course. It’s a really important book in terms of understanding college life. A third choice would be 100 Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez.