It takes a Westwood Village? Juana Hernandez, who graduated from UCLA in 2009, said she owes a lot to the greater UCLA community, a community she has been an active member of since graduating, paying it forward to the next generation of students.
Her parents immigrated to Southern California from Guanajuato, Mexico in the 1970s. They wanted to give their children the best shot they could in America, and understood the importance of education in that process, but their experience with the U.S. education system wasn’t just limited, it was non-existent.
Hernandez, however, came out the other side stronger than ever, putting in the kind of civic work for students and higher education that has garnered her the UCLA Rising Advocate of the Year award.
“My siblings and I were all born here, and we always knew education was important, but our parents didn’t have the first hand experience to really support us in what we had to do to prepare for college,” she said
So the family of eight packed into a two-bedroom house because they knew, at the very least, that the neighborhood public schools were good. But doubts lingered throughout her K-12 experience, and Hernandez never was certain UCLA would be a place for her.
If you think singular moments can’t have major reverberations, just examine Hernandez’s story. A counselor asked her 10th grade class to stand. And then that counselor systematically had the young students sit as she named academic achievements that didn’t apply to them. At the end of the exercise, only two were left standing.
“She said, ‘Look around, this is your competition if you want to go to UCLA and Stanford. You need to keep up with them.’”
That early high school moment framed UCLA as something exclusive to Hernandez, and not for someone coming out of a working-class immigrant background. “If I had any misstep, or if I messed up or had one bad grade, then UCLA was not going to want me.”
Still, Hernandez worked hard to achieve in high school, placing into college prep, honors and AP courses. She was definitely UC material by the end of her senior year. Yet, even then she didn’t immediately see a future with UCLA.
“I thought UCLA was probably this place where students were told, ‘Good luck,’ and if you made it through you were probably one of the few,’” she said.
After visiting schools on the East Coast, Hernandez was invited to attend an open house hosted by the UCLA Academic Advancement Program, which fell on the same weekend as a scholarship competition hosted by the UCLA Alumni Association.
Once on campus, the bad taste in her mouth began to dissipate. “I was struck by how many alumni were there at all points of the interview process and final competition. There were so many alums who seemed very dedicated to helping me. That was kind of unexpected.”
She also noticed many faculty of color at the UCLA AAP open house, including several who addressed Spanish-speaking parents. She noticed that the program offered specific sessions for undocumented students and immigrant families. “Maybe my conception of UCLA was wrong, and was soiled by that one person (the counselor). I really surprised my family and myself when I told them I was going to come to UCLA.
“I didn’t come from a family or neighborhood where I knew a ton of UCLA alums. Visiting campus and meeting everyone assured me that, if I did mess up or struggle, there would be a whole community here to support me.”
There was a whole community to urge her forward when things went wrong. “That’s important when you are a first generation college student, because you automatically have all this doubt. When you hit a wall, you take it as a sign that confirms your sinking suspicion that you’re not supposed to be here.”
Hernandez majored in American Literature and Culture, with minors in education studies, political science and Chicana/Chicano Studies. “I thought at the time I wanted to become a journalist and have a social impact by writing about things, making a change that way.”
She spent a lot of time with the Academic Advancement Program and gained experience working with other students. When she was looking to depart from Los Angeles after graduation, she decided Washington DC was the place for her, but it was difficult to find work in a recession economy for an English major.
There was an academic advisor role at a smaller DC university where she was able to put some of her skills to work, and she was able to help first generation college students. “From there I realized I really loved higher education.” She went on to work for the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities, gaining more experience in the field, before pursuing her master’s in public policy at Harvard University.
When she decided to come back home, she looked to work in education policy or higher education administration. She ended up, much to the surprise of herself and peers, at the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce.
“A lot of people assume that the Chamber is a private sector entity, but it’s a not-for-profit,” Hernandez said. “I work on education 100 percent of the time at the Chamber. And a lot of people don’t realize that a Chamber of Commerce in any region will usually have colleges and universities that are part of its membership.
“Colleges and universities play a big role in their regional economy. They are training workers, they are producing new research and technology that will help industries grow, innovate and create new jobs. And they are also hiring lots of residents.”
Through the L.A. Compact, Hernandez partners with higher education institutions to improve student outcomes, while also seeking to link K-12, community colleges and four-year institutions. “I still do higher education work all the time, but now from a different platform.”
And any time she can bring UCLA into a project, she tries to. “I feel very indebted to UCLA. Not only did I receive a quality education, but I think UCLA was really informative in helping me understand the kind of impact I could have in my community. It was really a ground to grow as a leader.”
Since graduation, Hernandez was happy to donate to causes such as the UCLA Latino Alumni scholarship program, Guardians Scholars and Undocumented student services, “but that didn’t feel like enough. I’ve been in the public sector for my entire career, so I’m not able to write big checks to UCLA. So then I thought, donating may be one way to be engaged, but I can also volunteer.”
She became one of those alumni helping potential students during the early scholarship process — the kind who helped inform her decision to go to UCLA and believe that the university was right for her. She also wanted to show her pride civically by showing the impact of UCLA has on the government and community.
And she thinks there is a youthful tide ready and willing to do the same, whether they are current students or young alumni like herself. “I do think that millennials, this younger generation, are really optimistic and refreshing to be around. They feel like government may not be elegant, but it is necessary. And they see that sharing their voice and perspective can actually change narratives around different political or policy issues.”
UCLA and higher education are well worth their time.
“We do need more advocacy for financial aid programs that enable UCLA be a leader in diversity,” she added. “Compared to its peer institutions, UCLA has one of the most socioeconomically diverse student bodies, and to preserve this we need to maintain state and federal investment. If you give current students and young alumni a concrete way to get engaged, they will take action.”
And then the cycle of paying it forward and empowering students to achieve will continue, and hopefully inspire the next Juana Hernandez.