Mentorship Powers Graduate on Journey to Law School
By Brian Hiro
Danna Gomez Mercado sometimes wishes she could talk to the version of herself from three years ago.
That Mercado was in her first semester at Cal State San Marcos as a transfer student, was failing multiple classes while struggling mightily with the transition to online learning, was raising two boys and working three jobs, and seriously contemplating giving up her dream to become a lawyer.
The Mercado of today is just over a week away from graduating from CSUSM with a 3.7 GPA and a degree in criminology and justice studies, is brimming with experience and confidence thanks to a life-altering internship, and is the proud owner of a 173 score (out of 180) on the LSAT that puts her in the 99th percentile nationally and will allow her to have her pick of law schools.
What would this Mercado say to that Mercado?
“I would tell Danna in 2020 not to give up, to keep going,” she said. “That you are going to experience things that you have never experienced and so many doors are going to open for you.”
Near her lowest point during the fall 2020 semester, Mercado was referred to CSUSM’s Faculty Mentoring Program, which is designed for students (like her) who are the first generation in their families to attend college and are economically disadvantaged in their pursuit of a degree. She was assigned to Flor Saldana, a lecturer of sociology as well as criminology and justice studies.
As the pandemic raged, their first meeting was over Zoom, of course, and Mercado laid out her predicament in no uncertain terms. A full courseload on top of being a mother, a wife and an employee (times three) was too much. The road to being an attorney was too difficult. The dream was dead.
Saldana could relate to her mentee’s plight. She too was a Latina and a first-generation college student who had attended CSUSM while doubling as a mother. She too had faced her share of challenges and had turned to the Faculty Mentoring Program for assistance. She had overcome adversity en route to earning a job teaching at her alma mater in 2018, and she wasn’t about to let Mercado give up.
“She came in and was like, ‘No, you’re going to do it, and we’re going to do it together,’ ” Mercado said. “She was just amazing.”
During their twice-monthly meetings that began three years ago and continue into the present, Saldana supported Mercado emotionally, helped her navigate processes like registering for classes, and connected her with resources around campus. Saldana, though, is quick to downplay her role in Mercado’s accomplishments.
“She tells me, ‘Oh, Flor, you’ve been such an inspiration,’ ” Saldana said. “But I’m like, ‘You don’t get this. You have the inspiration within yourself. It’s your drive. You’re just a go-getter. You know what you want, and you keep going for it.’ ”
Saldana also encouraged Mercado to do an internship at CSUSM, preaching its benefits as a force for networking and for solidifying career goals. In January 2022, Mercado started a semester-long internship at the San Diego office of immigration lawyer Aaron Giron. Taking Mercado under his wing, Giron brought her along to immigration court and let her try her hand at writing legal briefs. He even paid for her LSAT registration and for a tutoring program to prepare for the test.
“That was the best experience of my life,” she said. “It gave me the stamp of approval of, yes, you are destined to be an attorney. And it opened my eyes to how I want to help my community and my people.”
Giron was so impressed by Mercado’s performance as an intern that he offered her a paid position as an administrative assistant. The long commute from her home in Vista made that opportunity unfeasible, but Giron connected her last June with a colleague, a family law attorney in Carlsbad. She landed a job with the firm of Pierre Domercq that same day.
Within two months, Mercado was promoted from an office assistant to a document processor. Come the fall, she returned for her final year at CSUSM while shuttling her two boys, Wesley (12) and Joseph (6), to baseball practices and games and feverishly studying for the LSAT. She took the test in October on a day when she was suffering from the stomach flu.
No matter. Mercado posted a score that was within range of the median figure for hallowed law schools like Yale and Harvard. (She plans to delay her applications until the fall 2024 cycle to give her time to rest and recover.)
“When she told me her score, I was blown away,” Saldana said. “It speaks to the power of internships. It validated the mentorship she had gotten in the attorneys’ offices, the practice that she had acquired in dealing with cases, the program that they gave her to study.”
Mercado’s family migrated from Mexico when she was a newborn, and she grew up in Carlsbad. She met her future husband, John, at Carlsbad High School. They got married in 2014, six years after they graduated and three years after Wesley was born.
Mercado always had wanted to go to college, but she decided that it would be better to support her husband’s career as an electrical engineer who was starting his own business. As she was working multiple jobs to help make ends meet and raising their two boys, however, the education bug never stopped nibbling at her.
“I remember telling John that I feel like my life is going nowhere,” Mercado said. “And he was like, ‘You need to go back to school because you love school.’ ”
She fought through impostor syndrome for two years at MiraCosta College before transferring to CSUSM, where even bigger roadblocks awaited. Enter Saldana, who was as much a guardian angel as a faculty mentor for Mercado. When she talks about the influence that Saldana has had on her life trajectory, Mercado can’t hold back the tears.
“She’s my rock, my everything,” she said.
Here’s the amazing part: Mentor and mentee never have met in person, their interactions always confined – through either the pandemic or overstuffed schedules – to rectangular boxes on their computers. Mercado and Saldana plan to change that on Friday, when the Faculty Mentoring Program holds a celebration for its graduates.
“You just never know where those relationships are going to take you,” Saldana said. “Opportunities are abundant when you start mentoring students.”
Brian Hiro, Communications Specialist
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