Undergrad Spotlight: Samantha Mendez

by Karl Wirsing/SEFS

For someone about to graduate with an engineering degree, SEFS senior Samantha Mendez got hooked on her program through a surprisingly mundane product: a popcorn bag.

Sam grew up in Sacramento, Calif., until she was 13, when her family moved to Spokane, Wash. That’s where she attended part of middle and high school, and it’s also where she met Tom Wolford, executive director of the Washington Pulp and Paper Foundation (WPPF) at the time.

Tom was giving an info session on the Bioresource Science and Engineering (BSE) program at SEFS, and one of his demonstrations—involving that popcorn bag—struck Sam immediately. Tom spoke about how something as ordinary and overlooked as that bag was the product of a lot of people spending a great deal of time making it perfect. Sam liked the buzz about scholarships and internships and job opportunities, too, but she found the popcorn story particularly entrancing. “That was my first introduction to the industry, and I really liked it,” she says. “It was a turning point for me.”

Sam and her mom at the annual WPPF luncheon, where she was honored with the UW TAPPI Award.

Sam with her mom at the annual WPPF luncheon, where she was honored with the UW TAPPI Award.

Sam graduated high school in the spring of 2011 and enrolled at the University of Washington the next fall. The summer after her freshman year, she decided to take some classes at a community college back in Spokane. She wanted to catch up on a few prerequisites—including linear algebra, differential equations and organic chemistry—and she ended up extending at Spokane Falls Community College for the whole next year before returning to SEFS in 2013.

As soon as Sam settled into the BSE program, everything clicked. She felt at home with the small class sizes and close contact with professors, and she loved knowing all of her classmates by name. She got involved in the UW student chapter of the Technical Association of the Pulp and Paper Industry (TAPPI), including attending the 2015 TAPPI Student Summit in Savannah, Ga., and serving as chapter president this past year. She spent countless hours working with the paper machine in Bloedel Hall, attended PaperCon this past May in Cincinnati, Ohio, and also gained tremendous hands-on experience through several internships.

Her first was a three-month stint with the Ponderay Newsprint Company just north of Spokane in the small town of Usk, Wash. Sam worked as an engineering intern and got to assist with a range of projects, from statistical analysis and validation of testing equipment, to helping reallocate jobs for the workers. Her schedule involved four 10-hour days, Monday through Thursday, while she stayed at her aunt and uncle’s place along the Pend Oreille River. She’d come home after work, go for a run and then jump in the river to cool off. Then on Fridays, she’d head to her parents’ home in Spokane and work about 20 more hours over the weekend at an orchard. “It was really fun, and I learned a lot,” she says.

Sam, at work here in the paper lab, cites the small class sizes and accessibility of professors as huge reasons for her success. “Renata [Bura] is such a mom,” she says. “She’s fantastic.”

Sam, at work here in the paper lab, cites the small class sizes and accessibility of professors as huge reasons for her success. “Renata [Bura] is such a mom,” she says. “She’s fantastic.”

The next summer, she started what would become a 15-month internship with NORPAC in Longview, Wash. Working about 50 hours a week, Sam spent the first nine months on the paper machines, and then six months in the pulp mill.

Now, in a week she will head to Ashdown, Ark., for her third and final internship—this time with Domtar as a process engineering intern. WPPF had invited Domtar to campus earlier this year for an info session, and Sam scored two interviews and then a job offer in the same day.

She thoroughly enjoyed everyone she met with the company, and she’s looking forward to her first experience in the South. She’s also keen to work for a company that’s launching a new fluff pulp machine (used primarily for diapers). “It’s a rare opportunity to get to start up a new machine,” she says. “That’s what I’m most excited about.”

Perhaps the best part about this internship—like the two before it—is that it is fully paid. In fact, between her internships, the Del Rio Environmental Studies Scholarship she won her freshman year, and other WPPF support, Sam has been able to pay for most of her education. That’s a fairly remarkable achievement in today’s college environment, and Sam will head into her Domtar internship for what is essentially an extended interview process, with the potential to stay on permanently.

Before she leaves SEFS for good, though, Sam has one course to complete this fall with Professor Rick Gustafson. But first, she will be walking with the 17 members of her class at this Friday’s graduation as a worthy send-off for so many years of studying and working so closely together. “It’s such a great group of students,” she says, “and I’m proud and excited to be walking with them.”

Photos © SEFS.

Sam (back middle) and some of her BSE classmates.

Sam (back left) and some of her BSE classmates at the WPPF banquet on May 26.

 

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