Alumni spotlight: SPA grad, today a teacher serving on state education advisory board, sets sights on becoming a lawyer
Oscar Hernandez’s efforts to help meet the educational needs of undocumented students earned recognition from ASU when he was named a 2017-2018 Spirit of Service Scholar, an honor bestowed annually by the university’s Congressman Ed Pastor Center for Politics and Public Service, part of the Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions.
Hernandez received his bachelor’s degree in public service and public policy from the School of Public Affairs in May 2018 and his master’s degree in elementary education from ASU in May 2020. Today, he is a teacher at Collier Elementary School in Avondale and a recently appointed member of the Arizona Department of Education’s new Latinx Advisory Board.
Read on to learn more about Hernandez, his work while a student and the public service he is engaged in today:
Q. Tell us a little about yourself. Where are you from?
A. I was raised in a small city in Chiapas, Mexico. I grew up close to my grandparents and other relatives while my parents were trying to achieve their goals in the capital of Mexico. Once my parents were better prepared to unite our family, I moved to Mexico City with them when I was around six. This was a huge change for me since in Chiapas I was accustomed to living close to the ocean, spending time with my grandfather at his ranch and getting groceries with my grandmother at the local outdoor markets.
Life was simple in Chiapas, yet so precious. However, moving to a place like Mexico City was something I had always wanted; I had heard of a place called McDonald’s and at the time, I was dying to check it out. The city was amazing! There was so much to see, to do and to eat. Street tacos became my favorite food and I was excited to start this new chapter with my parents. However, they had larger ambitions waiting for me.
When I was nine, my parents sold all their belongings, traveled once back to Chiapas to say our final goodbyes and made our way to the United States. I was told there would be many more McDonald’s (restaurants) where we were headed. Once we arrived in Arizona, I fell in love with the landscape. I had never lived in a desert before so a lot of things were new to me. I thought palm trees only existed by the ocean! Once my family began settling in Phoenix, reality as an immigrant in this country started to become clear. Nonetheless, we unapologetically made this city, state and country our new home. In school when I learned about the myth of the phoenix (bird), I thought it was such a fitting name for a city like ours. A city full of people with stories such as the one of my family making the most of our circumstances.
Q. What are you doing now?
A. I recently completed my two years as a Teach for America Corps (TFA) member in Phoenix, where I also completed my master’s degree in education at ASU. Through TFA, I was able to teach fifth grade in Avondale, Arizona, where I was able to be on the frontlines of the complexities in our educational system. This was one of my learning objectives as a corps member, but I was stunned by how much the profession would end up teaching me about myself and what I want my future and the future of the state to be.
As an educator, I soon realized the importance of needing to continue the discussion of improving our schools, thus fostering a system that is meant to produce critical thinkers. Being appointed to the Department of Education Latinx Advisory Board was an honor because it afforded me with a space to speak up on what I saw as needed in schools and it gave me access to hear directly from leaders, such as the superintendent, on steps currently being taken to progress the learning of our students.
My most current endeavor has been joining the Los Abogados LSAT pipeline fellowship, where for the next few months I, with other law-interested students, will begin our journey through law school. I hope that soon I may graduate for a final time with a law degree so I may use it as a tool to enact the changes I want to see.
Q. How did your time at SPA and the Watts College prepare you for life after college?
A. The School of Public Affairs played a role in shaping my aspirations and molding me into a better professional. Despite only being part of SPA for two years, I took notice of my growth from the courses I took and the support network I was able to find at this college. Ultimately, I can say that SPA has enabled me to think more critically of the impact government has on communities and how we can address issues through research and inclusion. This was evident from my capstone project.
My vision for education contradicts the direction our current state political climate has taken, which prefers school choice over stronger public schools. I dedicated my senior capstone project on the matter of education accessibility and opportunity, where I analyzed standardized testing, the school choice movement and public-school funding. My aspirations, like the ones of other fellow SPA students, is to use the knowledge and tools I have been given by SPA to follow my heart and reason.
Q. What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in?
A. My parents always emphasized the importance of education as a tool of liberation; freeing ourselves from vulnerability, dependability, but most importantly, from oppression. Something about their confidence in education, despite not having degrees, made me grasp the significance and impact a college degree would have on my life and my community. I was fortunate to have this type of parenting, but for most low-income families, their focus is on feeding their loved ones, not on being critical of the education their children receive. In this case, their children’s aspirations can be very well determined by the teachers they are assigned or by the ZIP Code they live in.
When I step back to ponder as to why I made it this far, considering my low-income and undocumented background, things become a little clear. I now comprehend that for individuals like myself, in order to succeed we are dependent on forces out of our control to favor us. I plan to use my disadvantaged intellect to better assist the communities of which I am a product.
Being a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipient inherently turned my identity into a political and policy tool, for good and bad. Over time, as I became more aware of my position in this world and what I represented, I had this “aha” moment where I could picture things connecting to one another. This allowed my mind to see how history pertained to my life, how politics dictate my future and how the idea of investing in education was simply investing in ourselves. Policy then became something thrilling, not only was it personal in some ways, but there was something practical and solution driven that attracted me about the world of policy. Next thing you knew, it had become my declared major.
Q. Which professor(s) taught you the most important lesson while at ASU? Are you still in touch with him/her/them?
A. One of my biggest regrets of my undergraduate years was spending almost half of my upperclassmen classes online after transferring to ASU from community college. This was a decision I made in order to manage the load of interning, being involved on campus and starting a student organization. The downside of all that was that some of the classes I took at ASU were online, so developing a relationship with professors was challenging. However, Alberto Olivas was one of the first (members of the) ASU faculty and staff that I interacted with and over time we developed a relationship. Alberto to me has been a mentor that leads by example and I find his story to be resilient and admirable. When I think of ASU and the Watts College, he will be someone that I will immediately think of.
Dean Jonathan Koppell was also a figure that stood out to me a lot as a student. It was common to see him be a speaker at student-led events and (he) made an effort to maintain a relationship with the student government, like when I was (student) senator for the Watts College. I found it powerful to see the leader of the college associate themselves with the students and be part of political discussions at school events with them.
Q. What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you, that changed your perspective?
A. Both the experiences of co-founding Undocumented Students for Education Equity and being a Spirit of Service Scholar at ASU taught me the importance of challenging students to seek challenges that will push them to grow. These two experiences specifically demonstrated how students can begin to effect change without even having graduated. It is critical for Watts College students to recognize the power they already possess by being in an institution like ASU and having access to resources, professors and opportunities like no other.
This is something that shocked me because I do believe that anyone can find success at a place like ASU despite a person’s interest, background or ultimate goal. For current students, they must comprehend that college is only for a limited time and that they should not settle and wait until they start their careers to get involved and active. Instead, doing so as an undergraduate is a very rewarding experience that can lead to further success.
Q. If you had college to experience all over again, what would you do differently? The same?
A. I would take more advantage of the Sun Devil Fitness Center. It is truly a wonderful gym, but they also provide so many classes to try new ways to exercise. Adding a second minor would be a fantastic way to diversify my classes and interact with a wider ASU student body and more professors. Lastly, I wish I had acted more local and inevitably connected with the Phoenix downtown community more.
Q. What is something you think would surprise people to learn about you?
A. In high school, a friend of mine and I joined the school’s video production class. Within the first week we were assigned to lead the video morning announcements of our school. That semester was a memorable one since we had the opportunity to make many skits, keep our students informed on school topics and won first place at a local video production competition.
Q. What are your top three favorite music artists right now?
A. My favorite music artists are Bad Bunny, Gera MX and J. Cole.
Q. What is your life motto in one sentence?
A. “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.”
Mark J. Scarp is media relations officer for the Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions.