“My PhD didn’t level the playing field.”

   
  
    
  
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     Meet David Hernández, professor of Latinx Studies at Mount Holyoke College and first-gen college student.     
  
   
  
    
  
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      Tell us a little bit about yourself, who was David Hernández before he became a credentialed academic?    I grew up in Southern California, I’m third-generation Mexican-American, but a first-generation college student. I grew up on welfare, my parents split when I was nine, and so I was mostly raised by a single mom. We didn’t have a lot of financial stability; to give you an idea, I paid for my own SAT.  But in my mind, we were middle class because we lived in a house. Although we were on welfare and shopped with food stamps, it was only after I filled out the   FAFSA   that I realized just how poor we were—how little my mother worked with to keep our family alive. I worked a lot as a kid; I sold flowers on street corners, sold avocados door to door, worked at a restaurant—I basically worked around the clock. The summer before college I found out there was a huge housing deposit due and I worked all summer to save up. I didn’t find out until later that being a "minority" student on financial aid meant that I had better and more affordable housing options.    What was your college application process like?       I definitely knew that I wanted to go to college. I was determined to get out of my hometown. I applied to one school—back then the UC (University of California) system had you apply to one school and if you didn’t get in they’d reroute you to another school. As far as process, I filled out everything myself and told my mother where to sign.     What would you say was one of the most difficult aspects of arriving in college?    The biggest shock was the dorm. I started working at this pizza place my first day there. While everyone was meeting each other and hanging out in the common area, I’d get off the elevator in my pizza uniform. At the time, UC Santa Barbara wasn’t a very diverse place and even though I had participated in a bridge program for students of color and made some friends, I still felt very isolated. I was very shy back then which probably didn’t help matters. I resisted the urge to drop out because I had nothing to go back to. It was lonely at the beginning.    What advice do you have for students who are struggling to find their stride?       I always tell my students, don’t compare yourself to the people around you because you’re not like them. You can still thrive in a college environment, but you’re you, and you’ll do that in your own way.  I would also say, stick it out. I remember my sophomore year I was working at Kinko's and this Chicano kid came in and wanted to sell his books back. When I asked him why, he said he wanted to drop out. I could tell that he was in the same place that I had been the year before; it was only a few weeks into the semester, so I told him, “This feeling will pass, I’m not going to take your books back, but feel free to come back and chat with me if you need to.” I’m not sure what happened to him, but I wish students who find themselves in that kind of situation at the beginning would just grind it out—because that feeling is normal, and it gets better with time.    What do you think was one of the most difficult parts of college for you?    There was this persistent lack of information that stayed with me throughout my time. There were so many things I didn’t know, that I could’ve found out more about, but I was too embarrassed to ask. For example, I didn’t know there were on-campus interviews through the career development center—actually, I didn’t know what the career development center was and as a senior, I was too embarrassed to ask. I didn’t want to feel dumb so I didn’t ask so many questions.  I still went to class, I still studied, I still graduated with high honors, but I always felt like I was missing information that other students just seemed to know. Today, I tell my students to just ask. There are a lot of excellent staff people on the look out for students falling through the cracks. You’re not the first or only one to be in this situation. You have to avail yourself of what limited resources are there. These aren't remedial resources, but rather for students who want to succeed. It’s only four years and you have to just jump in.

Meet David Hernández, professor of Latinx Studies at Mount Holyoke College and first-gen college student.

Tell us a little bit about yourself, who was David Hernández before he became a credentialed academic?

I grew up in Southern California, I’m third-generation Mexican-American, but a first-generation college student. I grew up on welfare, my parents split when I was nine, and so I was mostly raised by a single mom. We didn’t have a lot of financial stability; to give you an idea, I paid for my own SAT.  But in my mind, we were middle class because we lived in a house. Although we were on welfare and shopped with food stamps, it was only after I filled out the FAFSA that I realized just how poor we were—how little my mother worked with to keep our family alive. I worked a lot as a kid; I sold flowers on street corners, sold avocados door to door, worked at a restaurant—I basically worked around the clock. The summer before college I found out there was a huge housing deposit due and I worked all summer to save up. I didn’t find out until later that being a "minority" student on financial aid meant that I had better and more affordable housing options.

What was your college application process like?

 I definitely knew that I wanted to go to college. I was determined to get out of my hometown. I applied to one school—back then the UC (University of California) system had you apply to one school and if you didn’t get in they’d reroute you to another school. As far as process, I filled out everything myself and told my mother where to sign.

 What would you say was one of the most difficult aspects of arriving in college?

The biggest shock was the dorm. I started working at this pizza place my first day there. While everyone was meeting each other and hanging out in the common area, I’d get off the elevator in my pizza uniform. At the time, UC Santa Barbara wasn’t a very diverse place and even though I had participated in a bridge program for students of color and made some friends, I still felt very isolated. I was very shy back then which probably didn’t help matters. I resisted the urge to drop out because I had nothing to go back to. It was lonely at the beginning.

What advice do you have for students who are struggling to find their stride?

 I always tell my students, don’t compare yourself to the people around you because you’re not like them. You can still thrive in a college environment, but you’re you, and you’ll do that in your own way.

I would also say, stick it out. I remember my sophomore year I was working at Kinko's and this Chicano kid came in and wanted to sell his books back. When I asked him why, he said he wanted to drop out. I could tell that he was in the same place that I had been the year before; it was only a few weeks into the semester, so I told him, “This feeling will pass, I’m not going to take your books back, but feel free to come back and chat with me if you need to.” I’m not sure what happened to him, but I wish students who find themselves in that kind of situation at the beginning would just grind it out—because that feeling is normal, and it gets better with time.

What do you think was one of the most difficult parts of college for you?

There was this persistent lack of information that stayed with me throughout my time. There were so many things I didn’t know, that I could’ve found out more about, but I was too embarrassed to ask. For example, I didn’t know there were on-campus interviews through the career development center—actually, I didn’t know what the career development center was and as a senior, I was too embarrassed to ask. I didn’t want to feel dumb so I didn’t ask so many questions.

I still went to class, I still studied, I still graduated with high honors, but I always felt like I was missing information that other students just seemed to know. Today, I tell my students to just ask. There are a lot of excellent staff people on the look out for students falling through the cracks. You’re not the first or only one to be in this situation. You have to avail yourself of what limited resources are there. These aren't remedial resources, but rather for students who want to succeed. It’s only four years and you have to just jump in.

Mount Holyoke college, where David is a professor, is a women's liberal arts college in South Hadley, MA.     
  
   
  
    
  
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    What were you interested in in college? What made you choose academia?       I was a business major in college, but now I’m in academia. I always tell people, during my very last final exam, I walked out and failed the exam. But I finished college, I was  done . I didn’t plan on ever going back. After graduation, I moved home briefly and started looking in the newspaper want ads for jobs, like I’d always done. I didn’t see any great jobs listed or anyone looking for a business major, so I moved back to Santa Barbara and eventually got a job as a front desk clerk at a hotel, where I worked for about a year.  Then, I drove across the country with a friend. My money ran out about three weeks later so I moved back to San Francisco where I lived for a few years. I did temp work, a lot of work I didn’t really like, and then finally I got a nonprofit job again by looking at the newspaper ads, at an NGO called Hispanics in Philanthropy. It was my first job that wasn’t at a restaurant or delivering pizza or anything like that. I was an assistant, but I didn’t know how to type, or how to use a computer, so I had to learn everything from there and act like I knew what I was talking about it. I learned a lot on the job about technology, about writing, about the Latinx political agenda, and about the nonprofit world. It was at that point that I decided I wanted to go to graduate school.    What did you study in graduate school?       I went to the University of New Mexico for my master's in American Studies. My time there really informed the path I ended up taking. During my master's, I applied to teach my own course, and as soon as I taught my first class it was like, “ Oh, I get it !” It just hit me. At this time, I was very politically oriented and I think for social justice minded individuals, it’s hard to sit in grad school with your books. A lot of time you question whether you should be out doing work in the community, but the moment I began teaching it all made sense and I thought, I could do this, I could contribute in this way. I went straight from a master's to my PhD and I haven’t looked back; I’ve been in academia ever since.    What does your research focus on and what led you to that particular topic?     As a master’s student, I became very interested in race and I focused on immigration. As a third-generation Chicano, I wasn’t really focusing on my own experience or even that of my immediate family’s, so in many ways that was a disconnect, but I was drawn to it because I saw it as an area where people—immigrants and their families—were getting raked over the coals and I became passionate about it.

Mount Holyoke college, where David is a professor, is a women's liberal arts college in South Hadley, MA.

What were you interested in in college? What made you choose academia?

 I was a business major in college, but now I’m in academia. I always tell people, during my very last final exam, I walked out and failed the exam. But I finished college, I was done. I didn’t plan on ever going back. After graduation, I moved home briefly and started looking in the newspaper want ads for jobs, like I’d always done. I didn’t see any great jobs listed or anyone looking for a business major, so I moved back to Santa Barbara and eventually got a job as a front desk clerk at a hotel, where I worked for about a year.

Then, I drove across the country with a friend. My money ran out about three weeks later so I moved back to San Francisco where I lived for a few years. I did temp work, a lot of work I didn’t really like, and then finally I got a nonprofit job again by looking at the newspaper ads, at an NGO called Hispanics in Philanthropy. It was my first job that wasn’t at a restaurant or delivering pizza or anything like that. I was an assistant, but I didn’t know how to type, or how to use a computer, so I had to learn everything from there and act like I knew what I was talking about it. I learned a lot on the job about technology, about writing, about the Latinx political agenda, and about the nonprofit world. It was at that point that I decided I wanted to go to graduate school.

What did you study in graduate school?

 I went to the University of New Mexico for my master's in American Studies. My time there really informed the path I ended up taking. During my master's, I applied to teach my own course, and as soon as I taught my first class it was like, “Oh, I get it!” It just hit me. At this time, I was very politically oriented and I think for social justice minded individuals, it’s hard to sit in grad school with your books. A lot of time you question whether you should be out doing work in the community, but the moment I began teaching it all made sense and I thought, I could do this, I could contribute in this way. I went straight from a master's to my PhD and I haven’t looked back; I’ve been in academia ever since.

What does your research focus on and what led you to that particular topic?

As a master’s student, I became very interested in race and I focused on immigration. As a third-generation Chicano, I wasn’t really focusing on my own experience or even that of my immediate family’s, so in many ways that was a disconnect, but I was drawn to it because I saw it as an area where people—immigrants and their families—were getting raked over the coals and I became passionate about it.

David with civil rights activist Dolores Huerta.   
  
   
  
    
  
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      Many students who come from low-income, first-gen, or other disadvantaged backgrounds are put off by the gatekeeping that goes on in academia as well as its insular culture, what would you say to them? Does the reality reflect these concerns?     That’s totally accurate. Numerically, if you move up any work chain, the number of students coming from working class backgrounds dwindles. In academia, you have a lot of people who are grown up but have never worked a regular job, because they’ve gone straight from college, to graduate programs, to a PhD, and have taught in academia ever since. When I went to Berkeley after getting my master’s, some students in my cohort were 22, straight out of excellent undergraduate programs, and now were in a PhD program. I had worked for five years before going into these programs, but most people haven’t done that.  Transpose that 30 years later and there are still people in academia who are now 50, and still haven’t worked in the “normal economy.” Obviously, academics are also part of the economy, but it’s different. It’s hierarchical, it’s competitive. There are all sorts of class-inflected concerns. For example, if you tell people that you grew up on welfare they might look at you a little differently. Beyond your demographics—beyond being a woman, beyond being gay, beyond being a person of color—there’s all these other things about your background that trip people up and cause them to question your legitimacy.    Do you feel like people question your credentials based on your background?       My first job was at UCLA and I remember one time we were talking with colleagues, at a barbeque and we were talking about drinking and dive bars, and I said, “Oh yeah, I grew up in a bar. My dad was an alcoholic and so I spent a lot of time in this bar when I was a kid.” It completely changed the vibe, people looked uncomfortable, some excused themselves, and I remember thinking, “ Oh no, I shouldn’t have said that .” It just felt like everyone was looking at me differently, like I wasn’t that same scholar anymore because I had this weird background that was foreign to them. It was one of those first-gen moments that comes back to haunt you—I was an assistant professor at UCLA at that point and I felt like an idiot. I thought, something’s wrong here. Even though I’d come so far, there I was feeling like a fool. It made me realize that my PhD didn’t level the playing field. Because it’s my pedigree that matters more.    Would you encourage first-gen students who are interested in academia to pursue that path?       Definitely. If you want to go into academia, do it. I talk to peers who say, I never tell anyone to go to grad school because there are no jobs. While that may be true, I still disagree. Yes, it’s a hard field, but if their dream is to study more and learn more, who am I to get in the way? I see students now and they’re way more prepared than I was at that age.  A double standard does exist. You’re going to have to work harder than everyone else to prove yourself, but that’s nothing new. You’ve probably been working harder since day one. Why would you let that discourage you now? When you break out of the mold of what you were “supposed” to be, you’re always going to feel a little bit out of it, but that’s okay, you can excel and thrive, you can do all those things. You can become the leader of your field—no doubt about it. Get used to the discomfort, because it sticks around for a long time—don’t let that deter you.    Anything else you’d like to add?     This is more so for the colleges to think about.  For first-gen students, the step of going to school makes us different from not only our peers, but our families as well. I think that fact is often overlooked. Everyone makes it seem like getting to college your first year means you’ve made it, but really, it’s just the beginning. So much gets piled on after that and it can be very overwhelming. Colleges and universities should be cognizant of what these students are going through—that they've made a choice that separates them from all they've known.   Rapid Fire Round:     What’s one quote you live by?   I can’t think of one off the top of my head, but probably a rock n’ roll lyric.    Who motivates you?   I have a lot of intrinsic motivation. I grew up feeling like I was constantly behind and I didn’t like the feeling, so I worked very hard to “catch up.”    One book recommendation?   Anything by Eduardo Galeano—I read all his books. I started with  Open Veins of Latin America .     Movie :   Real Women Have Curves  captures that family/college disconnect.

David with civil rights activist Dolores Huerta.

Many students who come from low-income, first-gen, or other disadvantaged backgrounds are put off by the gatekeeping that goes on in academia as well as its insular culture, what would you say to them? Does the reality reflect these concerns?

That’s totally accurate. Numerically, if you move up any work chain, the number of students coming from working class backgrounds dwindles. In academia, you have a lot of people who are grown up but have never worked a regular job, because they’ve gone straight from college, to graduate programs, to a PhD, and have taught in academia ever since. When I went to Berkeley after getting my master’s, some students in my cohort were 22, straight out of excellent undergraduate programs, and now were in a PhD program. I had worked for five years before going into these programs, but most people haven’t done that.

Transpose that 30 years later and there are still people in academia who are now 50, and still haven’t worked in the “normal economy.” Obviously, academics are also part of the economy, but it’s different. It’s hierarchical, it’s competitive. There are all sorts of class-inflected concerns. For example, if you tell people that you grew up on welfare they might look at you a little differently. Beyond your demographics—beyond being a woman, beyond being gay, beyond being a person of color—there’s all these other things about your background that trip people up and cause them to question your legitimacy.

Do you feel like people question your credentials based on your background?

 My first job was at UCLA and I remember one time we were talking with colleagues, at a barbeque and we were talking about drinking and dive bars, and I said, “Oh yeah, I grew up in a bar. My dad was an alcoholic and so I spent a lot of time in this bar when I was a kid.” It completely changed the vibe, people looked uncomfortable, some excused themselves, and I remember thinking, “Oh no, I shouldn’t have said that.” It just felt like everyone was looking at me differently, like I wasn’t that same scholar anymore because I had this weird background that was foreign to them. It was one of those first-gen moments that comes back to haunt you—I was an assistant professor at UCLA at that point and I felt like an idiot. I thought, something’s wrong here. Even though I’d come so far, there I was feeling like a fool. It made me realize that my PhD didn’t level the playing field. Because it’s my pedigree that matters more.

Would you encourage first-gen students who are interested in academia to pursue that path?

 Definitely. If you want to go into academia, do it. I talk to peers who say, I never tell anyone to go to grad school because there are no jobs. While that may be true, I still disagree. Yes, it’s a hard field, but if their dream is to study more and learn more, who am I to get in the way? I see students now and they’re way more prepared than I was at that age.

A double standard does exist. You’re going to have to work harder than everyone else to prove yourself, but that’s nothing new. You’ve probably been working harder since day one. Why would you let that discourage you now? When you break out of the mold of what you were “supposed” to be, you’re always going to feel a little bit out of it, but that’s okay, you can excel and thrive, you can do all those things. You can become the leader of your field—no doubt about it. Get used to the discomfort, because it sticks around for a long time—don’t let that deter you.

Anything else you’d like to add?

This is more so for the colleges to think about.  For first-gen students, the step of going to school makes us different from not only our peers, but our families as well. I think that fact is often overlooked. Everyone makes it seem like getting to college your first year means you’ve made it, but really, it’s just the beginning. So much gets piled on after that and it can be very overwhelming. Colleges and universities should be cognizant of what these students are going through—that they've made a choice that separates them from all they've known.

Rapid Fire Round:

What’s one quote you live by? I can’t think of one off the top of my head, but probably a rock n’ roll lyric.

Who motivates you? I have a lot of intrinsic motivation. I grew up feeling like I was constantly behind and I didn’t like the feeling, so I worked very hard to “catch up.”

One book recommendation? Anything by Eduardo Galeano—I read all his books. I started with Open Veins of Latin America.

 Movie: Real Women Have Curves captures that family/college disconnect.