As a first-generation college graduate, Ashley Hernandez knows well the challenges that come with navigating a university when no one in the family has done it before.
The 21-year-old Boyle Heights resident, who recently graduated from Cal State LA, is determined to help future students like her succeed in higher education.
“I want to be able to know that I made a difference in a student’s life—knowing that I was able to push their journey a little farther, knowing that I was able to show that I supported and believed in them,” Hernandez says.
Hernandez received a Bachelor of Arts in Child Development from the Rongxiang Xu College of Health and Human Services with a minor in Chicana(o) and Latina(o) Studies. She celebrated her achievement last month with fellow graduates during Commencement 2022, which took place during Cal State LA’s 75th anniversary. She plans to pursue a graduate degree in social work or counseling.
Growing up, Hernandez knew she wanted to work with youth. While a student at Francisco Bravo Medical Magnet High School in Lincoln Heights, she volunteered at a local daycare after class, where she loved to help them learn and play. When Hernandez started at Cal State LA, majoring in child development felt like the perfect fit.
At first, the transition to college was challenging, Hernandez says. She found herself experiencing imposter syndrome, a psychological state in which people question their abilities or feel like a fraud. But faculty members in the Rongxiang Xu College of Health and Human Services, like assistant professor Erica Ellis and professor emerita Rita Ledesma, helped Hernandez to overcome the challenging feelings, to not feel alone and to find her way at Cal State LA.
“They helped me be accepting of who I am as a student and encouraged me to be the best I could be,” Hernandez says.
A Dean’s List student, Hernandez excelled in the classroom, immersing herself in her coursework in classes on topics such as urban resilience, taught by Jessica Morales-Chicas, associate professor in the Department of Child and Family Studies. The class explored disparities in education and inspired Hernandez to use her passion for working with youth in schools to help bridge educational gaps.
“It helped me think that maybe I can do something to help,” Hernandez says.
Outside of her courses, Hernandez found ways to serve her fellow students and the wider community, embodying Cal State LA’s ethic of engagement and service for the public good. She worked as an assistant teacher three days per week at the Anna Bing Arnold Children’s Center on campus, served as a peer mentor for the Department of Child and Family Studies, and was an officer for the Child Development Association student group.
“Ashley is an exceptional student and peer leader. In various campus roles, Ashley has helped strengthen student belonging, increased access to campus resources, and helped advance student academic success,” Morales-Chicas says. “I continue to be impressed by her leadership and commitment to others.”
During the summer of 2020, Hernandez interned with Cal State LA’s Educational Community Health Outreach program, known as ECHO, which aimed to promote the oral health of children and youth in the Los Angeles region. The program was one of 13 local dental pilot projects funded through the California Department of Health Care Services and was a partnership between the Rongxiang Xu College of Health and Human Services at Cal State LA and the USC Herman Ostrow School of Dentistry, with collaboration from Children’s Hospital Los Angeles and other community organizations and schools.
As part of the internship, Hernandez helped provide virtual education and oral health kits to youth to help address oral health disparities in the communities served by Cal State LA.
In the summer of 2021, Hernandez worked with Para Los Niños, a local nonprofit dedicated to the education and well-being of children. She helped the organization run a summer camp for kids at a recreation center in her neighborhood and returned during the school year to help students with their homework.
Hernandez is proud to be the first in her family to earn a degree and grateful for the unwavering support and encouragement of her parents. Watching them work long hours to support their family motivated her to pursue higher education and reach for greater opportunities.
“With a degree, there are more opportunities and doors are open wider,” she says. “I hope to get a better income and one day be able to help them not have to work so hard. I think that’s every first-gen’s dream.”
As she begins to chart her career path, Hernandez hopes to one day work in a high school in Los Angeles to help low-income and prospective first-generation college students navigate the road to higher education.
“[The students] are going to be our future,” Hernandez says, “and I want to know that I can help them support their goals and create a better future for themselves.”
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California State University, Los Angeles is the premier comprehensive public university in the heart of Los Angeles. Cal State LA is ranked number one in the United States for the upward mobility of its students. Cal State LA is dedicated to engagement, service, and the public good, offering nationally recognized programs in science, the arts, business, criminal justice, engineering, nursing, education, and the humanities. Founded in 1947, the University serves more than 26,000 students and has more than 250,000 distinguished alumni.
Cal State LA is home to the critically-acclaimed Luckman Fine Arts Complex, Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs, Hertzberg-Davis Forensic Science Center, Hydrogen Research and Fueling Facility, Billie Jean King Sports Complex and the TV, Film and Media Center. For more information, visit www.CalStateLA.edu.