Newly Recertified Steward Antonio Mendez Cruz knows first-hand that even the most challenging obstacles can be overcome, provided the proper mix of humility and perseverance is employed in one’s undertakings. His SIU career to date provides evidence that such a proposition not only has merit, but also oftentimes is true.
A native of Puerto Rico, Mendez Cruz signed on with the union in 2001 and initially was a member of Paul Hall Center (PHC) Apprentice Class #623. Although Spanish was his primary language, he did—to a degree—speak and understand English.
At the outset, life for the young apprentice was good and devoid of any significant challenges. His initial courses largely were of the hands-on variety. Students were required to demonstrate their mastery of certain skills by actually performing specific tasks. As the curriculum grew more intense, however, and oral and written communication skills started coming to the fore, he began experiencing difficulties.
“I did not speak or write English very well at that time,” he said. “And a lot of in-depth material was being presented in my classes. I found myself falling further and further behind my classmates.
“In my second month of training, I failed the First Aid/CPR class twice,” he continued. “As a result, I was moved back one month in my training and placed in Class #624.”
At that point, Mendez Cruz was faced with a huge choice: He could quit, accept defeat, and pursue some other occupation; or he could take full advantage of the resources available to him at the PHC and continue working toward his dream of being a steward aboard an American-flag vessel. He chose the latter.
With the support and backing of then Commandant Pat Vandegrift (now Piney Pint port agent), Mendez Cruz mapped out a new strategy to complete his classwork. He would spend non-class hours improving his English skills.
Enter PHC Academic Advisor Peggy Densford and Gail Dobson, a former part-time academic instructor. Both spent considerable hours – sometimes two to three daily – with Mendez Cruz reviewing and reinforcing his classwork as well as tutoring him in English.
“When he came to the trainee program, he could barely speak English, but he was clearly well educated,” said Densford. “He could read very well … so that really helped him a lot.
“He would come to me after his vocational classes and we’d go over everything that he did that day,” Densford continued. “In his case, I think that the key was that he had a good academic background so he knew how to study.
“English was not his first language,” Densford concluded. “But it just goes to show that if you are willing to work at it, you can overcome those types of problems. He really worked his tail off…. He knew how to study and he never stopped trying.”
“Miss Peggy and Ms. Gail helped me a great deal during my apprentice training,” recalled Mendez Cruz. “After my vocational classes were over, during the afternoons and evenings while my classmates were relaxing, I was studying with Miss Peggy and Mrs. Dobson. It took me one year to complete my apprentice training. I always will be grateful to both of them for all that they did for me.
“My goal was to become a steward when I joined the union because I love to cook,” Mendez Cruz continued. “Here I am now 15 years later a recertified steward, an accomplishment that I didn’t even think about back then. I owe it all to the school and people like Miss Peggy and Mrs. Dobson.
“The school and staff have always been there for me,” Mendez Cruz concluded. “They helped me get to where I am today.”
Editor’s note: Policies regarding recycling students at the PHC have changed since Brother Mendez Cruz went through the apprentice program.
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