Although Dr. Steven Meneses’ ‘13 parents never attended college, themselves, they understood the importance of education. In fact, they moved the family to an area with better schools in his hometown of Chicago so they would have more opportunities to thrive and grow.
“We were the first Mexican-American family in the public school system in the neighborhood,” he explains.
Later, Dr. Meneses’ parents decided to enroll him in an all-boys Catholic high school where they thought he would gain the best preparation for his future.
“They worked double-shifts to put us through there,” he recalls. “They valued education that much, and that opened my eyes to education even further.”
Off to college
When his senior year came, Dr. Meneses watched his friends commit to four-year universities, but he had limited options.
“We couldn’t afford to go anywhere but community college, and I ended up at one a few miles away from my house,” he explains. “I knew education was important, and that is how I started my higher education career.”
An avid soccer player, he longed to pursue his dream of playing college ball. He decided to research four-year schools and applied to as many as he could. Ultimately, he was invited to attend a university in Washington and play on the soccer team.
“They gave me the opportunity to finish my education and the financial assistance to do it,” he says.
With his degree in hand, he returned home to Chicago to begin his career. Initially, he worked in a finance position before he decided to use those skills to launch his own business. Dr. Meneses had learned that mom-and-pop businesses often had difficulties securing loans from banks, and he saw an opportunity.
“My business was helping smaller businesses, such as auto repair shops, bakeries and dry cleaners,” he says. “I would go in and put together financing programs for them.”
He would assume the risk of the loan, and his clients would be able to fund purchases they needed to grow their business, loans the larger banks weren’t interested in funding. It was a success, and in his late 20s, Dr. Meneses expanded his operations to include 35 employees operating in all 50 states.
During the economic downturn that began in 2008, the climate changed. He sold his business and began to pursue a new path, one that would bring him closer to his passion for education.
A time to pivot
Along the way, Dr. Meneses earned a master’s degree in servant leadership. After the markets crashed, he leaned into education again to help him forge a new path because he never forgot the opportunities his education had opened for him.
“I felt connected to the mission of community colleges,” he notes. “Anyone who wants an education can walk in the door and get one. That’s what I believe in.”
He was accepted into the Doctor of Management and Community College Policy and Administration at UMGC, a degree that would help him secure a position where he felt he could make a real difference in the lives of students looking to build a brighter future for themselves, whatever their circumstances.
Championing accessible education
Today, he serves as associate vice chancellor with City Colleges of Chicago, whose 65,000 students include a majority experiencing poverty. In this role, he focuses on the technology sector.
“Technology is booming in Chicago,” he explains, “and [employers here] need a trained workforce.”
Dr. Meneses partners with the big technology players in town to learn what skills their workforce will need in the years ahead. For each technology program at the school, he creates an advisory council of local experts who weigh in on what they’re looking for as they prepare to fill current and future positions within their organizations.
Then, he works with the school to develop a curriculum that will prepare students to meet those needs, which benefits both the students preparing for future careers and the organizations that rely on a highly skilled workforce to succeed.
“I wanted to help my old community,” he says. “We’re making great connections for future opportunities for the development of others.”
For Dr. Meneses, the next step is clear: he has his eye on the role of president of a community college system where he feels he can expand the impact he’s making to reach even more students.
“I’m passionate about education and passionate about helping first-generation [college graduates] like myself,” he says. “I can take the leadership skills I have learned as an entrepreneur and in education and really make a difference.”
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