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Synchronizing life, on and off the ice

Senior Rocio Mendez-Rozo gives back through peer advising, Purple Line

Northwestern senior Rocio Mendez-Rozo (far right) poses with other members of the Purple Line on January 14 at the Synchro Illinois competition at Oak Lawn Ice Arena in Oak Lawn, Illinois. The team earned silver.
Northwestern senior Rocio Mendez-Rozo (far right) poses with other members of the Purple Line on January 14 at the Synchro Illinois competition at Oak Lawn Ice Arena in Oak Lawn, Illinois. The team earned silver.

Rocio Mendez-Rozo was nervous. The college freshman hadn’t been on the ice in three years and was vying for a spot on Northwestern University’s Purple Line, a competitive synchronized skating team.  

Channeling the drive to perform she cultivated during her childhood, Mendez-Rozo not only made the team, but has since risen to the presidency of Purple Line as a senior. She also was a peer advisor for three years at Northwestern, helping to transform the program’s curriculum for the better.

Her dedication to both activities has brought personal satisfaction and has allowed her to help incoming students facing the same obstacles she did, a characteristic she inherited from her upbringing.

“I struggled my freshman year, and my mental and physical health suffered as a result,” Mendez-Rozo said. “I realized my peer advisor and academic advisors were the people who set the example of what it looks like to persevere through it. I wanted to give that back.” 

The first in her family to go to college, Mendez-Rozo is part of a network of low-income students who have gained entrance to premier universities across the country with the support of QuestBridge. Through the program, QuestBridge scholars receive guidance beginning in high school and continuing through college and first jobs.

Mendez-Rozo chose Northwestern in large part because the University’s strong hard sciences programs would prepare her for a career in veterinary medicine. Staying close to home also was important to the Portage Park native. But uncertainty about belonging and sticking with a pre-med track caused considerable stress her freshman year.

Mendez-Rozo at a sectional competition her sophomore year.

In a lucky break, Kathy Janik, her childhood synchronized skating coach, was at the time in charge of the Purple Line at Northwestern. Mendez-Rozo once again thrived under Janik’s tutelage, rekindling the passion for skating she developed as a child.

Mendez-Rozo, who was on the ice by age 7, left synchronized skating behind in high school because of the cost and her need to focus on academics. Lacing up again provided stability during a difficult point in her life.

“Skating at Northwestern felt like a home away from home,” she said. “I think there’s something special about getting to the rink at 10 p.m. and having the whole ice to yourself with anywhere from eight to 11 other girls coming from completely different backgrounds and skating experiences.

“Some of the girls had never done synchro in their lives. Feeling like your common cause is to create a really beautiful dynamic and complex program and to perform — that was a really uplifting feeling.”

[VIDEO: Skate like a pro at Norris Center Ice Skating Rink]

Inspired by staff at Wildcat Welcome, the University’s weeklong orientation for first-year students, Mendez-Rozo applied in the spring of her freshman year to become a peer advisor through Northwestern Student Affairs’ New Student & Family Programs (NSFP).

Mendez-Rozo earned a spot on NSFP’s board of directors as a junior, and put in countless hours creating a new curriculum from scratch as the organization’s first director of staff training and curriculum. She worked especially hard to represent the first-generation perspective during her one-year term.

NSFP groupMendez-Rozo (front row, far right), poses with fellow peer advisors at
Millennium Park in Chicago. 
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“I wanted to take a social justice perspective to ensure we were training our peer advisors to create more inclusive spaces, from the moment students arrive on campus,” Mendez-Rozo said.

I think there’s something special about getting to the rink at 10 p.m. and having the whole ice to yourself with anywhere from eight to 11 other girls coming from completely different backgrounds and skating experiences.

Rocio Mendez-Rozo

Her drive was instilled at an early age by her mother, Liana Rozo, a clerk for Chicago Public Schools. Though Mendez-Rozo didn’t initially like to skate, her mother wouldn’t let her quit.

“It was the mentality that you have to give it your all for a while, and then you could decide whether or not that was good for you,” Mendez-Rozo said. “You otherwise don’t know what you could be missing out on, and she was so right.”

“A real go-getter,” Liana worked extra hours and volunteered at events for her daughter’s youth skating teams to help cover costs, which Mendez-Rozo said can exceed $20,000 per year.

Liana’s personal sacrifice didn’t go unnoticed.

“I have parents who are completely giving, who are wonderful examples of showing compassion to others,” she said. “I think that’s been inculcated through my life and is something that motivates me to be involved on campus.”

Read on to learn more about Mendez-Rozo’s role as a member of the board of directors for Northwestern peer advising, passion for synchronized skating and transition to college life. The following has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Q&A

Why synchronized skating? Why not figure skating?

I’ve always loved doing things in a team. I’ve never really liked isolating myself or performing solo, so synchronized skating was the compromise for that. It meant learning how to work with others, and using your own strengths to build up a team.

Is your mother your biggest role model?

Oh, absolutely. My mom is a superstar. I feel like I cry every time I talk about my mom. She’s very tender, very sweet, very giving. She and my dad are always reminding me I have a great future ahead of me. It hasn’t come without some difficult times, but I have a lot to be grateful for.

Mendez-Rozo with Northwestern President Morton Schapiro at his home.

What exactly do peer advisers do?

Peer advisers spend seven to 10 days at the beginning of the year orienting, mentoring and giving first impressions of campus to first-year students. They are passionate about sharing their love of Northwestern with new students and trying to impact the lives of new students on campus. You have a year-long commitment to your group of students, who you are paired with by school [Weinberg, Medill, etc.]. I think a lot of people don’t know that peer advisors spend upwards of 70 hours just training for this position.

How did the Purple Line help you overcome freshman-year struggles?

It was a place where you left the classroom behind. It was a space where you could de-stress and bond with other students in your year who were struggling with similar transitions. We had role models, too, seniors who could share with you why Purple Line was really fun, but also why it was an important identity-developing part of their Northwestern careers.

When can we see you and the rest of the Purple Line in action?

This year we’re putting on an exhibition, which is an ice show for the Northwestern community, in April at Robert Crown Community Center Ice Complex

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