Rene Garcia Hernandezrene-hernandez
’20 M.A. Education

By Stephanie Villafuerte
English major, Communication minor
Communication & Marketing Intern

From an early age, René Garcia Hernandez discovered the education system wasn’t fit for students like him. Undocumented, non-English speaking, and queer, it was difficult for Hernandez to fit into the mold that his new country demanded.

But that didn’t stop him. Instead, he fought off the judgement of others and grew up in his Santa Barbara home with one motive in mind: fixing the education system.

“I knew that my purpose in life was to dismantle, reimagine and develop learning environments where students, their families, and larger communities could have the freedom and opportunity to learn and grow into who they are,” Hernandez said.  

He started by studying for his B.A. in Sociology at CSU Northridge. And while college was a completely new ballgame for the first-generation student, Hernandez emphasizes that he wouldn’t have been able to graduate in 2015 without his circle of support.

“The process of navigating yet another unknown system was overwhelming and harmful, but luckily for me I had my little sister, my brothers, and my professors. I wouldn’t have been able to succeed if it weren’t for them.”

It was that same support that led Hernandez to pursue his M.A. in Education at CSUCI.

With an emphasis in Leadership Development, the grad realized how vital mentors were to undocumented students’ experiences in school. For him, it was Lecturer Nancy Jean Marie Pement who gave him the confidence he needed in the classroom.

“I thank Dr. Pement for her fearless determination, guidance, persistence, and self-determination in overcoming systemic barriers,” Hernandez praised.

Before graduating in 2020, Hernandez’s senior class put together a service-learning project that informed homeless youth and high schoolers about the college experience. From topics such as financial aid to on-campus housing, the event allowed teens to hear from college students themselves.

It was a reminder to Hernandez about what he wanted his life purpose to be.

“This experience reminded me about why I wanted to go into a graduate program in the first place; to make an impact as an educational leader, striving to contribute through action and academia, towards a liberated and reimagined system,” he said.

Providing a safe academic scene to underrepresented groups is the same goal Hernandez has today while working for Just Communities. A nonprofit based in Santa Barbara, Just Communities is an organization that teaches high schoolers about issues of identity and equity within their communities through summer programs.

Hernandez’s role in it all is as Director of Programming & Community Engagement. His responsibilities include engaging with the students and their families, as well as communicating with educators on the lessons being taught.

While it is a heavy weight to hold, Hernandez finds it important that he fulfill his role as a teacher to those he relates to.

“One of the greatest things I have learned while working at Just Communities and advocating for minorities is that one must use their power and privilege to dismantle the systems of oppression that are in place in the unjust society that we live in,” he said.

Hernandez plans to continue working with schools and non-profits to guide students toward a successful future.

He gives uplifting advice that anyone can connect with.

“Keep an open heart and mind. Stand your ground, back it up with research and story. Don’t be afraid to ask for help, and if you are feeling out of place - you belong there. Recuerda, si se puede, sí se pudo, y si se va poder! (Remember, if you can, then you can and you will!)”

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