A slice of the pie: University of Minnesota Crookston grad, mailman helps university secure STEM grant

Lauren Wallace, left, Ken Mendez and Megan Beck Peterson are working to bring the sugar beet harvest of 1937 to life in a photo display next month. (Sydney Mook/Grand Forks Herald)

CROOKSTON, Minn. — Ken Mendez might be the only mailroom worker in America to have written on a grant for STEM education, at the very least he's the most passionate, those around him at the University of Minnesota Crookston say.

He says it’s those on campus that make his work possible. And in turn, those around him say it’s Mendez’s passion that fuels each project of which he is a part.

UMC recently received a $92,000 grant award that will help to foster mentoring relationships between high school students, college students and researchers at the university. The grant is targeted at women and underrepresented populations in the Crookston-area with a focus on STEM education. The grant project will look at increasing participation by women and minorities from rural areas in science, technology, engineering and mathematics as well as the areas of food, agriculture, natural resources and human sciences.

But the path to get the grant, which was funded by the USDA, was unique.

Mendez, one of the grant writers who works in UMC’s mailroom, helped get the process started when he approached assistant professor Tony Schroeder in the math, science and technology department. Schroeder later became the principal investigator for the grant. Soon after, Anthony Kern, unit head for math, science and technology and agriculture and natural resources, got involved.


The writers had less than a month to submit the application for the nationwide grant, and Mendez said he didn’t have high hopes that they would get it.

“It’s like telling my mom and dad you want something for Christmas that you know you're not going to get, but I'm sure he saw my excitement,” Mendez said. “I’m sure that he felt. Wow, you know, he's onto something. I can't speak for him. But it was just like, I got this idea.”

By August, the university had received word that the grant was secured.

The project had special meaning for Mendez, a UMC graduate and current employee who can relate to the challenges facing students in the area.

“I personally understand the value of this grant funding. As an older-than-average student when I came back to school, I know I did not appreciate or grasp the importance of education at a higher level in high school,” Mendez said. “To provide this exposure to students will open opportunities I didn’t recognize as a high school student as well as potential career paths these students might never have considered without it.”

By his own admission, Mendez did not find his path to the University of Minnesota Crookston an easy one. He said he made some poor life decisions that involved drug and alcohol use, but Mendez has been clean and sober for 13 years now.

“I haven’t always made the best life decisions,” Mendez said. “Until one day when Tom Fuchs, a counselor and friend, said he wanted to take me out to campus. I usually refused offers like this, but, for some reason, this time I said ‘yes.’“

Now he’s giving back to the students and the college.


Mendez wants to help grow the student population at UMC and show prospective students, particularly those with a Latinx background, that college can be for them.

The proposal is three tiered and designed to break down the erroneous idea that “college isn’t for me,” UMC leaders said. The program is designed to have 20 students, in each of the grades 9 through 11, participate in STEM activities. Each year, the amount of time learning and participating in STEM activities will increase as the students get older. The programming was designed for them and developed by Kern.

Kern said the project goes beyond just learning chemistry and science, but how to apply that in real life scenarios in areas, such as agriculture.

Mendez swears he’s just simply a part of the team that helped get this grant funding started, but his colleagues and leaders at UMC say otherwise.

“It's just another contribution that I'm a part of a slice of the pie,” Mendez said. “It’s been a team effort.”

“This is this is such a distinctively University of Minnesota Crookston story,” UMC Vice Chancellor John Hoffman said.

Too often grant writing is thought of as something that is specialized and only an elite few people can engage in, Hoffman said. But, this project brings in people with a wide array of knowledge and backgrounds to come to together for one topic to help UMC.

“Yes, Dr. Schroeder's expertise is an important part of this, but Kenny Mendez your knowledge and your passion is part of the unique way this happened ,” Hoffman said, speaking to Mendez. “Without you, it wouldn't have happened. And I think that is something that can be special for so many of our students who are first generation or who are Latinx, or come from low-income families and, and they think of the university as the ivory tower. But this is saying, ‘no, you have special knowledge that we need, and that's going to make us all better.’”


Mendez says it’s a testament to the open campus environment that he was able to speak up and ask a professor a question about this in the first place.

“Ears are open on this campus,” he said.

Hoffman was quick to respond back, again noting Mendez’s key involvement.

“How many mail room coordinators across the country are involved in grant projects like this?” Hoffman said with a chuckle. “I haven't checked for sure but I'm pretty certain the number is one. That's what's special about this place is that people with very different types of background experiences come together and are valued in this type of project.”

Now, embarking in a new direction, Mendez and student Lauren Wallace, alongside Megan Beck Peterson, who works with student services, are planning a photo gallery that will show the history of the 1937 sugar beat harvest.

The exhibition will feature prints by photographer Russell Lee. “Roots of the Red River Valley,” a pictorial history of the 1937 sugar beet harvest, will be on display at the University of Minnesota Crookston on Nov. 4-9.

More than 80 images by Lee, known for his work with the Farm Security Administration, will be available in Bede Ballroom at the Sargeant Student Center.

A special Commons presentation and panel discussion about the pictorial history will take place at noon Nov. 7 in Kiehle Auditorium. Parking permits are not required.


The photographs tell a story in three categories: the migrant worker, the farmer and the factory.

Mendez found the photos several years ago and sent them to a friend.

Images, selected from the Library of Congress, give the viewer an opportunity for greater understanding of the lives of people and the importance of sugar processing in the Red River Valley. The photographs were taken in Polk County, near Fisher and Crookston, and at the first processing plant built in 1926 and located in East Grand Forks.

“This exhibit is impressive on several fronts and definitely worth viewing. First, the photography draws me in as a viewer to ponder the history of farming and the immigrant worker in our area,” said Mara Hanel, executive director of the Northwest Minnesota Arts Council in Warren, Minn. “Their relationships, their families and homes."

Mendez’s involvement on campus goes beyond the exhibition and the grant, however. He led efforts around four Cinco de Mayo celebrations and five theatrical performances. Mendez has brought MLB Hall of Famer Darryl Strawberry, Pulitzer Prize winner Taylor Branch and Grammy Award-winner Michael Farris to campus. But each thing he does has meaning to him and he believes it’s all possible because of the people around him, even if they give it right back to him.

“I’m passionate about giving back to the university,” he said. “I love this place.”

Sydney Mook has been the news editor at the Post Bulletin since June 2023. In her role she edits and assigns stories and helps reporters develop their work for readers.

Mook was previously with the Grand Forks Herald from May 2018 to June 2023. She served as the Herald's managing editor, as well as the higher education reporter.

For story pitches contact her at or call her at 507-285-7771.
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