Harrison College House's elevator is working overtime these days. A roster of passengers routinely ride it with one thing in mind: transformation. If you were to head up to the 16th floor yourself, you’d hear laughter, music, and a faint buzzing sound reminiscent of your hometown barbershop. Your ears aren’t playing tricks on you—as you walk down the hallway, the buzzing and conversation amplify.
Suddenly, there’s silence. A few moments later, a door opens and the kid from your computer science class walks out with hair just a little shorter than you remember. The guy standing behind him turns to you and smiles widely. “Hey man, are you next?”
Andrew Mendoza (W '24) has been cutting people’s hair for over five years. Since his first year of high school, people have trusted him with pretty much the entirety of their appearances—and for good reason. With a current average of 50 clients a week, Andrew is by no means someone whose talent should be doubted. Penn students, alumni, and Philadelphia residents vie for time in the chair in Andrew’s room, their necks draped with a hot towel, awaiting the smooth up–and–down glide of his trusted clippers.
According to Andrew, it started as a joke. One day after school, his friend asked him to learn how to cut his hair. Haircuts are expensive in their hometown of Little Elm, Texas, and Walmart was practically begging them to grab some shiny clippers off its shelves.
Two hours later, Andrew’s garage floor was covered in hair, and his friend was left with a haircut that, according to Andrew, was “trash.” But that never deterred him. He enjoyed the rhythmic movements that came with cutting hair and the satisfaction of nailing someone’s new fade. Before long, Andrew was cutting hair for his dad, cousins, uncles, nephews, and pretty much anyone else he could. Eventually, his family barber found out he was cutting hair and offered him a job. "I started working over there with him," Andrew says with a shy smile. "It was very illegal, and I was getting paid under the table."
At first, he was making a 50% commission. Soon after, a competing barber poached the young coiffeur with a 70% commission. Once COVID–19 hit, he brought his clients home with him, their cars circling the block. From 7 a.m. to 2 a.m., Andrew welcomed people to his trusted barber chair, played some music, and worked his magic on them.
“You couldn’t come unless you had an appointment, and sometimes people would try to sneak in with their family members. I’d always let it slide, but it definitely set me back a lot,” he laughs.
Caring about others comes naturally to Andrew. With a double concentration in finance and health care management, the sophomore's lifelong dream has always been to open up his own hospital. “If I’m not directly helping people by being a doctor, I want to be able to do it from a distance,” he says. That's why cutting hair means a lot more to Andrew than just extra pocket money—it means supporting his family. In high school, Andrew had to fight off truancy warnings in order to continue working. When Penn moved online last year, Andrew stayed home to make more money cutting hair in between Zoom classes.
Once classes became in–person, word of Andrew’s abilities spread quickly on campus. “I knew some people from school already before this semester, and they’d hit me up on Instagram asking, ‘Bro, can I come in for a cut?’ and, ‘Oh, are you on campus now?’ And I’d cut them up,” Andrew says. His customer count increased effortlessly.
When I ask Andrew about his favorite part of giving haircuts, his face lights up. “The people,” he answers. It doesn’t take a genius to realize how much he values the interpersonal relationships he’s built through his intimate client interactions. He constantly finds himself amazed at the fact that he’s befriended people from all across the world—Puerto Rico, China, Japan, Mexico, and more.
“They each have their own stories to tell through their own languages, right? They have their own essences, and it’s just so great conversing with them because I feel that real barbershop aspect,” Andrew says. People tell him that that feeling resonates more strongly in his room than in an actual barbershop. “In a real shop, people only go there to get cuts—boom, boom, done,” he says. In Andrew’s shop, you’re met with a shoulder to cry on.
Sometimes a haircut can mean more than meets the eye. “I’ve had people cry in front of me after getting a cut, and it means a lot to me,” he says. “You know, you come in, sit down for 25 minutes, and just let me know what’s going on in your life.” Some people have never had a consistent barber in their lives, and now Andrew is theirs. His haircut zone is a no judgment zone.
“Sometimes it takes a toll on me, because I didn’t know you’re going through this … I still love it though because I get to help people to not only look good, but to feel good as well,” he says. Clients have called it a therapy session, and perhaps rightfully so.
Outside of his makeshift barbershop walls, Andrew is an active member of Onda Latina, Penn’s premier Latinx dance group. He's also the treasurer of MEChA de Penn, a club dedicated to exploring Mexican culture on campus. “I love the atmosphere in those clubs because I really see myself in everyone in them,” he says. Plus, the members all make for great clients.
Through everything Andrew has learned during his career cutting hair, he's taken away one important message: Be kind to others. “You never know what anybody’s going through, and you can change their world just by being nice to them,” he says.
His impact on campus extends beyond the 16th floor of Harrison, past the streets filled with students walking to class with fresh fades, and into the hearts of everyone he greets. Meet Andrew once, make a friend forever.
For haircut inquiries and appointments, contact Andrew via Instagram at @_andrew_mendoza_.