Steinhardt senior Pilar Mendez didn’t always know she would venture to five different countries, conduct critical research and spend her college career as a public health major.
“I was actually a theater kid,” Mendez said.
Now, theater is only a hobby for Mendez, and she feels no need to steal the spotlight — she shines in her actions, putting a spotlight on the needs and concerns of others.
While seeking ways to fulfill high school community service requirements in her hometown of Honolulu, Mendez was surprised when she realized how much she enjoyed working at a women and children’s hospital. She began conducting studies at the Hawaii State Department of Health and decided to follow a pre-med track in college.
Over the course of her college career, Mendez’s focus on public health evolved through classes, research and trips. Mendez found a mentor in her professor Diana Silver, with whom she immediately connected.
Silver, the director of Undergraduate Studies in Public Health, said the most intriguing part about watching Mendez transform since she has come to NYU was hearing her thoughts along the way.
“That intellectual openness, that personal vulnerability … was really inspiring,” Silver said.
One major factor in deciding to pursue the public health field was Mendez’s family history, her maternal side having a close relationship with the medical world.
“My mom’s a nurse practitioner. My grandfather is a retired pediatrician. My grandmother’s a nurse,” Mendez said. “I had a health background on one side of my family, which was an interesting dichotomy.”
Mendez’s paternal side, however, was less comfortable with the medical field, living in the South Bronx where they did not have a primary care physician.
“It was an interesting experience of growing up with people who were afraid of medical health and wanting to go into health,” Mendez said.
Once at the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development, Mendez pursued everything from working at the Center for Multicultural Education and Programs to becoming the executive vice president of the Class of 2015 Activities Board. She has also devoted time to countless international programs, and is currently a resident assistant in Lafayette Street residence hall.
Mendez, along with her friend Adam Brulhardt, a CAS senior, used their passions in education and public health to collaborate on an upcoming January Term program abroad. Working with Nicaragua’s Foundation for Sustainable Development, students will build a pharmacy and hold health fairs to inform citizens about sustainability. Brulhardt said Mendez was the obvious choice for him to pick in spearheading the trip.
“Who else would I want to lead a trip with?” Brulhardt said. “She’s passionate about the social issue, and I know she’s already a good leader and also one of my best friends.”
When Mendez was a freshman, she journeyed to Panama. The Steinhardt School Professional Development Grant funded her trip to provide HIV testing and counseling to rural communities. From there, Mendez continued her critical research on refugees and disparate communities studying abroad in London, during an Alternative Breaks trip to Florence and during a service trip to Guatemala.
“A lot of times you go to these places and you really see the impact that you can make on even just one person’s life,” Mendez said. “Being able to actually work with people to create change was something I really appreciated.”
Mendez serves as a research assistant at NYU Langone Medical Center, enjoying the typical conditions of lab coats, mice and test tubes. Assisting Silver’s studies on city tobacco policies, Mendez conducts research on a geographical location’s effect on obesity in racial and ethnic communities. She has also participated in public disparity studies of Philadelphia neighborhoods through Drexel University.
By working with Mendez, Silver noticed strong attributes in her mentee, and believes she is certainly a force to be reckoned with.
“Pilar is both approachable, and she’s thoughtful, but she’s not intimidating, despite having, at this time, a rather intimidating résumé,” Silver said. “I’ve seen her … at Kimmel with a good 800 people, and she’s up there at that podium. And she’s not shaking, she may be nervous because this is probably the largest audience she’s ever spoken to, but she’s not paralyzed. The voice doesn’t quaver the entire time. She’s kind of amazing.”
The personal aspects of her activities have caught Mendez’s eye, making her realize that collecting data in a lab is not enough for her research. Her time as an RA, an ambassador and a student have inspired her to discover the human experience in every study she conducts.
“Research is defined differently for different people, but within that public health context I’ve always found it important to be actually going out and talking to people and experiencing,” Mendez said. “I hear the numbers, but I have the stories, too.”
Email David Bologna at [email protected] A version of this article appeared in the 2014 Influential print edition.