Military service, climate change advocacy lead graduating senior to a promising future
Abigail “Abbie” Menendez embarks on a life of service and teaching when she graduates with the class of 2020 on May 15. (Photo: Courtesy of Abigail Menendez.)

Military service, climate change advocacy lead graduating senior to a promising future

For environmental studies and health major Abigail Menendez, a U.S. Navy veteran, serving others is its own reward. [5¼ min read]
ByWayne Lewis

The path that led Abigail “Abbie” Menendez to join the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences’ Class of 2020 wasn’t exactly traditional.

A Navy veteran and transfer student a few years older than most of her peers, she worried at first that she wouldn’t fit in. But she found her campus home volunteering with USC Dornsife’s Joint Educational Project (JEP), one of the oldest and largest service-learning programs in the U.S.

“At first, I was like, ‘OK, I’ll try it. It’s extra credit,’” she said. “But then I actually fell in love with it.”

Inspired by the examples set by family members and motivated by an empathy cultivated through her own struggles, Menendez has plotted a trajectory largely defined by service — whether it’s making a difference for military women going through some of the hardest times of their lives, a planet afflicted by the effects of climate change or children who attend under-resourced schools. Her experience at USC Dornsife empowered her to approach her future with confidence, imagination and ambition.

“I got the chance to be involved with programs that I care about and be around people that I care about,” Menendez said. “It helped me discover who I am.”

The family tradition that nearly wasn’t

Born in San Diego, Menendez moved with her family to her father’s native Puerto Rico when she was 1. Her parents’ relationship ended within about a year, leaving her mother to provide for two young daughters on a preschool teacher’s paycheck.

“Her working, having to take care of two kids on her own when she didn’t speak Spanish, and still succeeding definitely played a big role in my life,” Menendez said.

The family returned to live in Southern California by the time Menendez was 6. There, she had trouble keeping up with the language arts curriculum and was held back. Redoubling her efforts, she picked up an early lesson that transcends book learning.

Photo of Abbie Menendez sitting on a boulder

Abbie Menendez gains higher ground in California’s Joshua Tree National Park. (Photo: Danielle Collins.)

“I worked really, really hard to move up,” she said. “It built it into me to work hard to achieve things.”

Her mother, Megan Emswiler, married the man Menendez calls Dad today, Dee Emswiler, a sometimes-stern Army vet and civilian employee of the Department of Defense. His career meant that the family moved around a lot — to New Mexico then Florida, on to Germany followed by Virginia — although they landed back in Oceanside, California, for Menendez’s last three years of high school.

Emswiler often encouraged Menendez, her older sister, and her two stepsisters to follow in his footsteps of service. Unanimously, the girls’ reflexive answer was that they would never join the armed forces.

But it didn’t quite turn out that way. When big sister, Coral Menendez, came of age, she enlisted in the Coast Guard while also pursuing college full-time, providing an influential example. Abbie Menendez also saw that assistance through the G.I. Bill could turn the remote idea of earning a degree into a tangible possibility. So she signed up for the Navy at age 17. (Next daughter in line Eve Emswiler is now in the Air Force.)

There for others during a hard moment

During her six-year enlistment, Menendez went on five deployments to Greece and Bahrain, where she picked up an affinity for the cultures of the Middle East. She grew proficient in Arabic while earning an associate’s from the Defense Language Institute.

However, as a woman in an environment often dominated by men, she faced some rough times. This included an incident when a supervisor was cavalier about a matter of safety, spurring her to speak out on behalf of her co-workers — an unusual move within the military hierarchy.

Her instinct to protect others extended to her work as an advocate for sexual assault victims in the Navy.

“I’m just glad I could be a part of people’s lives during a very hard moment,” she said. “Sexual assault is something that isn’t really talked about. There’s a stigma, which is wrong. It taught me to stand up for what needs to be said and address things, even if they’re very difficult.”

Following her passion — to the governor’s mansion?

While in the Navy, Menendez enrolled online at Oregon State University. Reading Anthony Weston’s Mobilizing the Green Imagination for one class drove home the dire consequences of climate change and sent her in a new direction. Her next stop upon separating from the military, in 2018, was USC Dornsife to study environmental science and health.

“That major correlates exactly with what I’m passionate about,” she said. “I think climate change is one of the main issues that needs to be addressed globally.”

Photo of Abbie Menendez on pebbly shore

Abbie Menendez on a visit to Denali National Park in Alaska. (Photo: Megan Emswiler.)

She found the chance to share this important message while volunteering with JEP, instructing a local middle-school class about environmental topics for eight weeks. By the end, she was gratified to see how much the students had learned. Menendez continued volunteering with JEP, also worked with USC Dornsife’s Teaching International Relations Program and later joined the JEP staff as a student program assistant.

Along the way, Menendez discovered her passion for teaching. After graduation, she’s going to continue to explore it — and to serve others — as a volunteer with Teach for America, a nonprofit that recruits recent college grads to teach public school in low-income areas. Menendez looks forward to her two-year assignment as a science teacher in Los Angeles.

She plans to apply some strategies she saw firsthand during her classes at USC Dornsife — particularly in lectures on sustainability from Victoria Petryshyn, assistant professor (teaching) of environmental studies.

“Some of the topics seemed as though they’d be difficult, but she made them fun and interesting, and it connected,” Menendez said. “I want to take her approach with me when I become a teacher.”

Mendendez’s love of teaching may end up keeping her in the profession, but she also has other ideas in mind long-term: Law school may be in the future, with an eye toward a second career in public service.

“I want to try to take a big role where I can effect change, becoming governor of California or mayor of L.A.,” she said. “I set these really crazy goals sometimes because when you work toward them, whether you achieve them or not, you still better yourself.”

Then again, those goals may not be so crazy for someone like Abbie Menendez — diligent since her youth, resilient to adversity and devoted to service.