Humans of Chinook Fund: Nancy Hernandez

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I am an introverted person. I’m a very private person and I’m also a very nerdy person. I really struggled with making friends. I didn’t know how to connect with people. I was a very lonely person. I’m thankful that I was pushed. I had different individuals who pointed out to me, “You really need to break out of your shell.” Back then I was like, “I don’t really need to break out of my shell. This is my comfort zone. I’m good here.” But I always had that little “granito” of like, “This isn’t enough for me. Going to my job and doing my job is not enough. I want to make a difference. I want to make a change.” So that, coupled with people saying to me, “You really need to go out and make friends,” made me push myself to be uncomfortable, to go out and meet people, and to join Chinook Fund because that was the first organization that I joined outside of college that was doing the kinds of things I had done at Colorado College. It was perfect. I felt embraced, challenged, and supported. I learned about leadership and social justice in a whole different way. I got to meet amazing people. The whole time I kept thinking “This isn’t me. I’m such a nerd. I sit at home and read books. I don’t talk to people at parties. Is there a place for me in this activist movement?” It was very uncomfortable because I don’t see myself in that way, but it was the best thing that happened to me and I’m very thankful for it. It did transform my life. It was the stepping stone to me becoming a leader and being comfortable in how I chose to make change in my world.

I am a first-generation, low-income Latina. I came from El Paso,Texas. My parents are immigrants from Mexico. That’s my personal experience. I was privileged that I was born on the right side of the border. You know, the more privileged side of the border is a better way to put it. I did not recognize my privilege for a very long time because I was the kind of student who loves school and education. It provided a lot of opportunities for me to get out of poverty. For a long time, I didn’t see my undocumented friends and family because it was so hidden. I was kind of wrapped up in my challenges of going to college as a first-generation student. When I became a working professional and started working in higher education, it became very apparent that there are low-income, first generation students who have all of these challenges and then there is this group of students who, because they lack this piece of paper, have even more challenges. I found myself saying, “Everyone needs the same thing. Everyone the same access to higher education. Everyone needs more financial aid. Everyone needs to know how the system works. Everyone needs to know how to get into higher education.” Yet, on top of that, students who don’t have a Social Security number have this other, extra layer of struggle that they have to go through. That, to me, is not fair; it’s not just.

I’m a very impatient person. I get so frustrated with bureaucratic systems. When I’m presented with a problem, to me, it’s like, “Just fix it! Just go around it!” I think my passion and energy comes from figuring out ways to work around systems. Some people say, “You can’t do it that way. That’s bending the rules.” This is also very dangerous because you can’t constantly be bending and breaking rules. At the same time, it’s very rewarding when you’re actually able to bend the rules and it makes a difference for a person or a small group of people. My lack of patience has forced me to chill out. There are a lot of very painful lessons there- learning to prioritize, learning that change is very slow, learning not to be so angry, learning to have a sense of humor. I was so angry when I was younger. I just wanted to bust things up. Sometimes I still do. But you can’t live like that. I had to acknowledge that I am a human being and there’s only so much I can do and I need to be okay with that. I also have to take care of myself. I am not useful if I burn myself out. I am not useful if I burn relationships and agreements with people who are trying to be my allies. It helps that I’ve learned to be a little silly. I laugh a lot more than I used to.

I learned a lot from my boss at the Hispanic Scholarship Fund. Her name is Dr. Alejandra Rincón and she specializes in working with undocumented students. She was aware of the lack of resources for undocumented students in Colorado. She put together the first state resource list for them. She inspired me so I started networking. There were already other groups of people who were working with and for undocumented students. I joined a group that presented information to students and families about their options- back then- it was mostly going to New Mexico. And these other groups- it just so happened that we all came together in a very Chinook Fund way. All these volunteers were saying, “You’re working on that. I’m working on this. So let’s work together!” We put on a Keeping the Dream Alive Conference. It was such a magical moment because we were motivated volunteers who did what it took to make it happen. Then in-state tuition passed. Then we got DACA. I was very lucky to finally be able to tell students that they had some options.
From the beginning, I told myself that the most important thing about my job was to be honest with the students and I families I work with. I don’t go around saying to students, “College is easy. It’s wonderful!” I can’t do that. It’s very hard when you’re wanting to inspire a young person or keep the family’s dream alive while tempering it with the realities of a system that a lot of times doesn’t support students. I learned that trust comes from me not sugar coating things and not telling them things that aren’t true. I’ve learned to try to temper what I say. I try to portray a balanced picture, but ultimately leave the power with the person making the decision.

One of my biggest struggles right now is to finish my dissertation and figuring out what I want to do with the rest of my life. I am a person who wants to see action. It’s really hard to see direct action when what you’re doing is writing a paper. It really makes you wonder “Who’s going to read this?” and obviously no one’s going to read it. Dissertations are not written to transform the world; they are written to add to a body of knowledge and that’s really hard for someone like me because if I see something that needs to be changed, I jump in and do what I can to fix it. It’s been a very slow process reminding myself that I chose to get a PhD not because I am an academic person, but because I saw the opportunity to learn so that I can bring a different dimension to the social justice work within education. I thought it would take me three years to finish but now I’m going on my fifth year. I came to a point where I realized I could live without the PhD. It’s not the end of the world. It’s not what defines me. But I can’t live with it hanging over my head so it’s best to just get that done. Plus, I can’t disappoint my mentors. I want to make them proud. People automatically think, “Oh, a PhD means you want to become a professor. You want to join the tenure track process and teach young people.” Yes, I like to teach, but the thought of joining yet another system of oppression, where you have to start over from the very bottom and prove yourself as a woman of color after I already know a lot of this stuff and don’t need to prove this to anyone, is really hard. I’m at a point where I’m just waiting for the universe to present opportunities for what my next move might look like.

-Nancy Hernandez

Nancy currently serves on Chinook Fund’s Board. Check out her bio on our Board Member’s page!