Educator Recognized for His Work Supporting LGBTQ Students

Gary Santos Mendoa receiving the 2024 Diamond Honoree award
Gary Santos Mendoza, director of the Intercultural Resource Center at Rutgers University-Newark, was honored in March for his work with students
Courtesy of Gary Santos Mendoza

Gary Santos Mendoza was honored by the country’s leading student affairs association

Gary Santos Mendoza had a hard time finding acceptance in college as a queer Latino.

After joining Phi Iota Alpha Fraternity, Inc., the oldest Latino fraternity in existence, while attending St. John’s University in New York City, he learned that some of his brothers were also queer but not out. That is when Santos Mendoza started to realize the need for greater visibility and representation in the Latinx community.

His experiences with anxiety and depression led him to enter the field of higher education providing support to students like him.

“Being Latinx, queer and dealing with mental health challenges, it was important for me to give back in a very specific way in higher ed and ensure the kids like me not only see themselves in the world, but that they feel more than worthy to be in it,” Santos Mendoza said.

Santos Mendoza, director of the Intercultural Resource Center at Rutgers University-Newark, the social justice department in the Division of Student Affairs-Newark that serves students of different backgrounds, including the LGBTQA+ community, was recently honored for his work as a 2024 American College Personnel Association (ACPA) Diamond Honoree – a recognition given by the nation’s leading student affairs organization.

Gary Santos Mendoa giving his acceptance speech as a 2024 Diamond Honoree award
Gary Santos Mendoa giving his acceptance speech as a 2024 Diamond Honoree
Courtesy of Gary Santos Mendoza

He was nominated by a colleague from the ACPA who is familiar with Santos Mendoza’s work with students at Rutgers, including his support for historically marginalized and economically neglected students of color.

“This award feels like validation – that it was okay to say and do all the things that I did and not follow the status quo or what was given because I refused to constrict myself into the traditional definition of a higher education leader,” Santos Mendoza said.

Since Santos Mendoza joined Rutgers-Newark in August 2019, he has centered his work on diversity, equity and inclusion, student life, leadership education, community engagement, LGBTQA+ services and Greek life. Through his leadership, the center provides LGBTQA+ student services and undocumented student services, programs such as racial healing circles and identity-based celebrations like Rainbow Graduation. The center also examines current events and hosts events for culturally based months and celebrations. It serves as the home to Rutgers-Newark’s 40+ cultural and identity-based student organizations and provides training and access to scholarships.

The Diamond Honoree program was established in 1999 to advance research, scholarship and programs that promote student development and success. Diamond Honorees are “championed” by dedicated individuals who recognize their specific contributions and choose to raise funds in honor of each Diamond Honoree’s outstanding and sustained commitment to higher education through student affairs and student development.

Santos Mendoza also received the ACPA – College Student Educators International Mid-Level Community of Practice's Outstanding Commitment to the Strategic Imperative for Racial Justice and Decolonization (SIRJD).

“Winning these awards is a blessing,” said Santos Mendoza, one of 18 honorees recognized in 2024. “Not only as someone working in the higher education space, but as a queer individual working in the diversity, equity and inclusion space, being able to show how leadership can take many forms and help to foster welcoming environments for our students is paramount.”

To date, the Diamond Honoree program has generated nearly $500,000 in support of the work of the foundation and ACPA, which funds continued research and provides scholarships for affiliates to pursue higher education and other scholarly activities such as attending conferences. The nominator serves as the fundraising champion for the Diamond Honoree by leading a campaign to raise a minimum of $2,500 and a challenge goal of $3,000.

All of the 2024 Diamond Honorees
The entire 2024 class of Diamond Honorees
Courtesy of Gary Santos Mendoza

“I have learned so much over the years. Some by choice and some by fate, like how to navigate doing my job efficiently and in a supportive manner during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Santos Mendoza reflected. “Our institution’s population is so intricate and diverse that it takes a more multifaceted approach to really support our students and community wholly.”

That support includes creating safe spaces for students to discuss what’s happening in their lives, providing resources for those in need, working with staff to ensure that students’ needs are met and providing training and resources for others looking to build a more inclusive community on campus.

“I do my best to lead by example with my team by letting them know that it's okay to be yourself. It's okay to acknowledge sometimes that this work can be challenging. So, making sure that we’re connecting with colleagues in other parts of the country and making sure that we're doing work that is intentional to keep our communities educated is pivotal to sustained change,” Santos Mendoza said.

As he completes his Ph.D. in educational leadership with a focus in higher education from Florida Atlantic University and his first book, Heart Work: The Handbook on the Surviving and Thriving of Cultural/Identity Centers in Higher Education, focusing on the complexities of leading cultural centers on college campuses, Santos Mendoza continues to find ways to foster welcoming environments for the community and how his studies can take that work further.

“The students give me so much life and the energy to continue this work. Being in Newark is such a special place because they all have so much pride in being from Newark and wanting to better the community from within. Being able to help them do that and learn more about themselves in the process brings me so much joy.”