Even from a young age, Jessenya Hernandez had a keen sense of justice and fairness.
She saw her father work hard to provide for her and her siblings, and even though there were tough times, she knew she was more fortunate than many.
“I was aware of other people’s struggles,” she says. “I would get so mad when I knew people could have a better life, but no one wanted to help them get the resources.”
Hernandez, who will cross the stage to receive her bachelor’s degree in anthropology, with a minor in sociology, Sunday, June 12, is pursuing a doctorate in political sociology. It’s a field of study that focuses on marginalized populations and their rights and resources.
“My father worked very hands-on, labor-intensive jobs. Seeing him work tirelessly for those he loved inspired me to do the same,” she says. “Even though he worked long days, his love for us never lacked. He always reassured me that we would be together forever, no matter what.”
The McNair Scholar, named 2016’s outstanding graduating senior in anthropology, credits her parents, her boyfriend and a professor who has served as a mentor with helping her succeed and connect with ways she can channel her passion for shining a light on society’s most vulnerable.
Grace Coria-Hernandez, Hernandez’s mother, says caring about what is just is in her daughter’s DNA.
“She is somebody who always wants to do the right thing,” Coria says. “She is strong in what she believes. When she believes in something, she makes it known.”
Coria-Hernandez, who stressed the importance of education to her children, says her daughter was very bright and determined, excelling in the advanced International Baccalaureate program in high school and taking classes at Riverside Community College’s Norco campus simultaneously.
With a large, extended and tightknit family behind her, Hernandez thrived.
“She always has been ahead of the game,” Coria-Hernandez says.
Hernandez credits her mother with offering her unwavering support, whether a shoulder to cry on, encouragement during moments of doubt or financial assistance during the lean times. Both of her parents inspire her, she says.
“I get a lot from my parents when it comes to perseverance and overcoming obstacles,” Hernandez says. “I feel like I am following in their footsteps. I got it from them.”
Hernandez said she was drawn to cultural anthropology from the start.
“The biggest thing is the holistic view you get,” she says. “Instead of jumping to conclusions, you learn to understand that you don’t know why things are the way they are on the surface.”
She was interested in the McNair Scholars Program, which aims to increase the number of first-generation, low-income and underrepresented students in doctoral programs. When Hernandez overheard a fellow student talking about it in class, she turned around to get some answers. That student was fellow McNair Scholar and graduate Daniel Gomez, who later became her boyfriend.
The pair were friends first, but started dating last summer after growing closer while out of state at their respective research internship programs, she at Purdue University and he at Michigan State.
Gomez says they keep each other motivated and apply for grants, fellowships and internships as a unit, even if it means they are in competition. They see themselves as in it together.
“We evolved a lot together,” he says. “We definitely learned from each other and it was very parallel. It’s the particular privilege of being able to play around with intellectual ideas. It’s just intense, beautiful and amazing.”
Hernandez credits Gomez for helping to keep her on track.
“We really pushed ourselves and wanted to make sure each of us is as successful as possible when it comes to academics,” she says.
The McNair Scholars Program requires students enrolled to work on undergraduate research.
Hernandez chose to focus on the rights and resources of those in the foster care system, interviewing students in the university’s Renaissance Scholar’s program.
“I knew a lot of people in the foster care system,” Hernandez says. “There are many negative things you hear about it and it seems like not enough is being done to fix it.”
There are statistics readily available but not many stories, so Hernandez set out to tell the personal stories in her research.
She lauds Anthropology Professor Claudia Garcia-Des Lauriers for serving as her advisor for the past two years.
“She’s been a mentor for my research from the beginning,” Hernandez says. “She helped me with a lot of scholarships and awards and gave me a lot of resources.”
Garcia-Des Lauriers describes Hernandez as someone easy to mentor.
“Jessennya is a very focused student and one of those rare students who is totally self-motivated,” she says. “Her research on foster care was entirely her own. I just guided her through it. It’s really wonderful to mentor someone who is already well underway to becoming your colleague. She’s been a joy to work with.”
Hernandez is already at work on the next phase of her life. Although she plans to come back to town to cross the stage for her diploma and celebrate with her family, she recently started a summer pre-doctoral program at the University of Illinois.
“It feels great because I can make my family proud,” she says of graduating. “They always expected me to go to college because I always did well in school. But now, they can brag about it.”