A Bridge to the Community

Carolina A. Hernandez arrived at Lehigh University eight years ago to help connect the school with the surrounding neighborhoods, mainly low income Spanish-speaking residents. 

As director of Lehigh’s Community Services office in Bethlehem, Pa., Hernandez leads a major initiative called “Move-Out.” Before Lehigh students leave their dormitories for the summer, they donate items they don’t take back home: clothes, shoes, toys, televisions and small refrigerators. The items are sold to needy families for low prices: stuffed animals – $0.25; shoes – $0.50; men’s and women’s jeans – $1; men’s and women’s dress clothes – $3; and small refrigerators – $15 to $20. 

The 30-year-old Cuban-American says the program has generated $50,000 over the last 10 years with all the money used to support neighborhood programs sponsored by the Community Services office. 

“We even got a 42-inch TV this year that we might sell for $25. I have seen families do their shopping for the kids and can get a whole new wardrobe for $20, and all the clothing is in good condition,” says Hernandez, who graduated from the University of Miami with bachelor’s degrees in international studies and political science. “We could sell these items for a lot higher prices. Some people in South Bethlehem need these items. We are part of this community, and we should help out.” 

The Community Services office does more than just donate goods to the residents of Bethlehem, which is 20 percent Latino. About 100 Lehigh students tutor the same number of elementary and middle school students through its “America Reads, America Counts” program. For its efforts, the office received the president’s Community Service Honor Roll award, co-sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education, “for exemplary service efforts to America’s communities” for a second consecutive year. 

The Community Services office, which includes 14 Lehigh students, works with another 80 elementary and middle school students in homework clubs to improve their performance in reading, English and other subjects. 

When Hernandez arrived at the campus about 60 miles north of Philadelphia, she immediately noticed a missing link. 

“When we started sending out fliers for events, they were only posted in English. The most important thing is to understand the community,” Hernandez says. “Fliers are now done in both Spanish and English. Being bilingual can help open doors where families trust me and it has gotten to the point where I know the families and come into their homes. Then these families come to our campus and become even more involved.” 

Hernandez’s latest initiative is serving as co-chair of Lehigh’s year-old Council for Equity and Community, a coalition of students, professors and administrators that promotes diversity on the 7,000-student campus. The student body is 6 percent Asian or Pacific Islanders, 5 percent Hispanic, 3 percent Black and 1 percent American Indian or Alaska Native. 

Hernandez says the 16-member council is an advisory board and makes recommendations to university president Dr. Alice P. Gast.

  “Carolina is a vital person at Lehigh,” says Dr. MJ Bishop, associate professor of instructional technology and co-chair of the Equity Council. “The Community Services office has just done a tremendous job from the grassroots level enhancing Lehigh’s outreach to the community. If it hadn’t been for Carolina’s outreach, then Lehigh wouldn’t have been able to make more strides than it has been able to do.”