The prestigious award went to 54 students nationwide who are committed to making a difference in the world, and – true to the spirit of the award – Hernandez learned of the honor while working at the Orange County United Way during spring break.
In addition to his duties at the charity, he has founded his own nonprofit organization, Mentors Empowering & Nurturing Through Education, that pairs low-income, first-generation minorities with college-student mentors who help them prepare for education beyond high school and stimulate civic engagement, analytical thinking and leadership development.
“I’m completely overwhelmed right now,” Hernandez said after learning he’d been named a Truman Scholar, a title that comes with up to $30,000 for postgraduate study. “All of the finalists were amazing people, and any one of them fits the mission of the scholarship. I’m truly humbled.”
Hernandez comes by his love of music naturally. His father, a guitarist, and his mother, a singer, met through music, and they instilled in their son a love of traditional Mexican melodies. “I began playing Latin percussion with my parents when I was 12,” he says. “And then I picked up the guitar and went on from there.”
His band, The Reckoners, is a mainstay on Friday and Saturday nights at the Anthill Pub, playing everything from blues, jazz and hip-hop to electro, funk and pop. “Our mission is to fuse together with the arts community at UCI to establish a new music and arts culture,” Hernandez says.
His interest in community activism and political science dawned with the realization that his neighborhood wasn’t thriving as it ought to. Growing up on Orange Avenue in Paramount, he absorbed what he calls the “companionship and beauty of Mexican culture” but also saw gang activity, drug use, drive-by shootings and domestic violence.
Only 15 students from his graduating class of 625 enrolled in a University of California school, he says. Hernandez had met with a counselor about his future and planned on attending community college. It was a visit to his high school campus from a representative of UCI’s Center for Educational Partnerships that inspired him to consider applying to a UC school.
“UCI was the perfect fit because I had a recording contract in L.A., and I could go to school here and still be close enough to do that,” Hernandez says.
Building on his own experience, he started M.E.N.T.E. in 2010. As co-founder and executive director, he leads 14 board members and 45 volunteers who help two Los Angeles-area high schools increase the number of students enrolling in two- or four-year colleges and vocational schools. “We work with all students, regardless of their background, GPAs or problems, because they all have unique potential,” Hernandez says.
In the first year, his group helped 15 seniors enroll in college. This year it assisted 60. The next round includes more than 260 students, and M.E.N.T.E. will have its own facility from which to operate. One of its schools will depend solely on M.E.N.T.E. for college counseling.
“My mission is to empower youth through education so that they develop the mechanisms, skills and resources to change their lives – and the lives of their family and community – forever,” says Hernandez, who plans to eventually complete a law degree and a master’s degree in public policy and go into politics. “As an elected official, I would hope to draft policies to improve educational and financial stability in my community.”
Mark Petracca, UCI associate professor and associate dean of the School of Social Sciences, coached Hernandez for the interview portion of the Truman Scholarship competition and says he has attributes that are rare and precious in a politician: “He listens well. He seems to be attentive to what is said and is responsive to it. This quality was clearly evident during our practice interviews and will serve him well as a public official.”
The Harry S. Truman Scholarship – established by Congress in 1975 in honor of the 33rd U.S. president – is considered the nation’s highest honor for college students who have reached junior status and have demonstrated exceptional leadership potential and are committed to careers in public service.
In addition to funding for graduate study, winners receive priority at premier graduate institutions, leadership training, career and graduate school counseling, and special internship opportunities within the federal government. Awardees must be U.S. citizens, have outstanding leadership potential and communication skills, be in the top quarter of their class, and plan to work in government or the not-for-profit sector.
Prospective UCI candidates submit applications to the campus’s Scholarship Opportunities Program, which helps undergraduates obtain prestigious merit scholarships requiring university endorsement.
Hernandez is UCI’s seventh Truman Scholarship recipient. The last win was in 2005-06.
About the University of California, Irvine: Founded in 1965, UCI is a top-ranked university dedicated to research, scholarship and community service. Led by Chancellor Michael Drake since 2005, UCI is among the most dynamic campuses in the University of California system, with nearly 28,000 undergraduate and graduate students, 1,100 faculty and 9,000 staff. Orange County’s second-largest employer, UCI contributes an annual economic impact of $4 billion. For more UCI news, visit www.today.uci.edu.
News Radio: UCI maintains on campus an ISDN line for conducting interviews with its faculty and experts. Use of this line is available for a fee to radio news programs/stations that wish to interview UCI faculty and experts. Use of the ISDN line is subject to availability and approval by the university.