Jennifer Mendiola wasn’t just any psychology student. She was a potential star.
A fourth-generation Sacramento native and a Ph.D. student at UC Merced, she was researching the factors contributing to risky behavior and poor health decisions. She and two colleagues at Merced published articles in a pair of prestigious medical journals in the past year. The topic: the wariness among California Latinos to get flu shots and the effect that has on public health.
On Wednesday, her family’s worse fears were realized: Mendiola, 35, who went missing in the devastating Oakland warehouse fire, was confirmed as one of the 36 who died in the blaze. Mendiola was attending a late-night rave party at the so-called Ghost Ship warehouse when the fire broke out Friday.
“Our beautiful Jennifer has been identified,” her sister-in-law, Anna Mendiola, said in a text message to The Sacramento Bee. “She died without suffering. She was unconscious in 15 (seconds) and was not touched by the fire. The cause of death was smoke inhalation.”
Mendiola’s death reverberated on the Sacramento State campus, where she graduated with a master’s degree in psychology in 2010. The school issued a statement saying “our hearts go out to all her loved ones.”
The news hit particularly hard at UC Merced, where she had established a reputation as a high achiever. The university announced it will hold a moment of silence for Mendiola at noon next Monday in front of the Kolligian Library.
“She was one of our students who was setting a very high bar,” said one of her UC Merced professors, Anna Song. “She was on the cusp of being this independent scientist who was going to make her mark in this field.”
Mendiola’s mother, Janet Barmby, said her daughter was about a year away from earning her degree at Merced. “She worked very, very hard for all that,” Barmby said.
Jennifer Mendiola grew up in the College Greens neighborhood, graduated from Sacramento High School and earned an undergraduate degree at California State University, San Francisco. After getting her master’s at Sacramento State, she enrolled at Merced but commuted to the San Joaquin Valley campus from Oakland, where she lived with her husband, Jean-Thierry Mendiola.
Barmby said her daughter had broken up with her husband and had just moved in with a young man involved in electronic music. That man, identified by authorities as Micah Danemayer, 28, was among those performing at the party and was also killed.
“They went to the rave and all hell broke loose,” Barmby said.
Despite the breakup, family members described her husband as distraught. “When she danced, everyone stopped what they were doing and stared at her because she was the most beautiful thing in the world,” her husband said in a statement released through his family.
In 2012, she began working on her doctoral degree in psychology at UC Merced, studying how close social relationships influence risk behaviors and emotion.
In the past year, she and two others from UC Merced co-authored reports for the Journal of Preventive Medicine and Preventive Medicine Reports about the willingness of immigrants from Mexico to get flu vaccines. The researchers concluded that younger-generation immigrants are less apt to get flu shots than their elders. The reason: Flu shots are more prevalent in Mexico, so the older generation is more comfortable getting the vaccines.
Song said the university pushes its doctoral students to get published in medical journals, but it’s hardly an everyday occurrence. “She had the potential to be a significant scholar in our field,” she said. “As a scientist, I look and say what a loss. In all respects, what a loss.”
That same research formed the basis of a lengthy opinion piece Mendiola co-authored for the Los Angeles Times last December.
“The flu vaccination message that has been so well communicated in Mexico needs to spread to Latinos and everyone else in California,” Mendiola and her fellow authors wrote.