ARLINGTON, Va. — When Sergio Hernandez reached various milestones in his educational career, he always wondered why his father never showed up at the ceremonies to celebrate.
He harbored resentment toward the man all the way up until the time he earned his political science degree from California Polytechnic State University in 2010 — not fully appreciating the fact that his father’s work as a gardener played a major role in his ability to graduate from college without debt.
“My mother asked me: How are you graduating without owing anything to the institution?” said Hernandez, who serves as outreach programs manager for the Hispanic Scholarship Fund.
“I was like: I can’t believe I’ve been blaming him for all these years.
“It took me almost 23 years of my life to realize the resentment and anger I had for him was really dumb because he was busting his butt off to make sure my sister and I would go to college,” Hernandez said. “We graduated from college with zero loans because he paid for it.”
Hernandez shared his story with more than 100 select high school seniors recently during the Youth Leadership Institute, a four-day, overnight “college empowerment” conference that the Hispanic Scholarship Fund held at Marymount University.
The conference is one of several that the Hispanic Scholarship Fund is staging this summer at campuses throughout the nation in an effort to encourage its scholars to seek entry into America’s elite colleges and universities.
“The purpose is to empower high-achieving, Latino students to pursue the top colleges and universities in the country,” said Jason Acosta, senior outreach programs manager at the Hispanic Scholarship Fund.
The program seeks to achieve this goal through mentorship, and panel discussions and workshops that feature experts on subjects that range from financial aid to admissions.
“Students come in not knowing, not fully confident in the process of applying to college, and then leave with full confidence that they can pursue the college of their choice,” Acosta said. “What we end up doing is demystifying the college application process.”
The conference also seeks to expose young participants to accomplished Hispanic professionals who have overcome obstacles and who’ve made significant contributions to the Hispanic community.
Several such professionals shared their stories during a “Hispanic Heroes” session at the Youth Leadership Institute. Speaking in intimate groups seated in a circle of chairs, the speakers touched on themes of sacrifice, persistence in the face of daunting odds and giving back to help others from similar situations.
Hernandez, for instance, spoke of a $500 scholarship he started with his parents for students who are undocumented — an experience that Hernandez has lived himself.
“And now it’s a full scholarship given every single year,” Hernandez said. He spoke of how he declined to let his name be put on the scholarship.
“It’s not about leaving a legacy. I don’t need my name to be on a building or a certificate when a student gets the scholarship. It’s more about the idea of why I did it.”
Hernandez grew up most of his childhood not realizing he was undocumented.
“When I found out I was undocumented [it] was my senior year,” Hernandez said. He said he didn’t want his parents to go to the high school for help getting into college but they did anyway.
A teacher in a college readiness program at the school helped raise $10,000 for Hernandez through fruit sales, car washes and the like.
Hernandez urged students to “be assertive” about finding foundations or alumni associations that provide scholarships for undocumented students.
“We have to ask for help,” Hernandez said. “That’s the best way we can support each other.”
Ron Estrada, vice president of corporate relations and community empowerment at Univision Communications Inc., stressed the need for the students to give back.
“You say, how am I going to do that if I’m studying or working 12 hours a day?” Estrada said. But he assured the students that whatever they give “will come back to you tenfold.”
The messages resonated with students such as Manuel Martinez, 18, of Bristol, Virginia.
“Being Hispanic and facing difficult situations in society, I think that regardless of your situation, whatever it is, economically or legally, this session has really opened my eyes to so many opportunities,” Martinez said. “There are people that are going to help regardless of the thousands that are against you.
“It has really been inspirational,” Martinez said.
Jamaal Abdul-Alim can be reached at [email protected]. Or follow him on Twitter @dcwriter360.