VISTA Spotlight – Paige Hernandez

IMG_7167.JPGName: Paige Hernandez

Host Site: Cal State University, Program for Education and Research in Biotechnology (CSUPERB)

Alma Mater: Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo

Major: B.S. in Anthropology & Geography, Concentration in Law & Society

Background: As soon as I stepped onto Cal Poly’s campus, I fell in love. Not even my former top schools could compete with all of the beauty and charm that San Luis Obispo had to offer. I had no idea then, what a great opportunity it was to be accepted into such a competitive university.  However, I am sure glad to have made the right choice by enrolling at Cal Poly.

1917660_1210157820403_7714773_nMy love affair with Cal Poly started in the Summer of 2009. As an Educational Opportunity Program (EOP) student  I was able to attend a summer bridge program called Summer Institute (SI). During this program, I moved into my first real apartment and took my first college classes, months before my freshmen class even arrived. I also met my best friends in SI and instantaneously became part of 60 person family unit, made up of low-income, first generation, and minority students like myself. This cohort of students became my support system over the next four and a half years, and helped define what “SLOme” (SLO + home) means to me today.

312720_10150456817954045_702220110_nIn the fall of 2009, I made the decision to sign up for sorority recruitment. I rushed Kappa Alpha Theta, and became an initiated member of the Zeta Theta chapter in November of that year. Theta taught me a lot about myself, and helped me realize that I could turn my passion of helping others into a career. I jumped at any opportunity to get involved with our national philanthropy, Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA), and during my junior year I was elected Chief Marketing Officer. Sorority life for me was more than just a party; it was a learning experience that taught me how to successfully balance my academic and social life, how to walk into a room full of strangers and network with confidence, and how to manage a thousand dollar budget for the first time. I also learned how navigate a large group of strong-minded individuals, and rally them to work together in order to raise awareness and money for a common cause. All in all, sorority life made me a better professional, a better friend, and a better sister.

In my junior year of college, I was able to officially switch my major from Journalism to Anthropology & Geography (yes, despite the myth it IS possible to switch majors at Cal Poly). Changing my major has been the most impactful decision I have made yet, because it was my social sciences degree that provided me the necessary tools to be an effective leader in public service.  As a senior, I lived in the Bay area and interned with non-profit building free, organic garden11845158_10153641254344131_7717601945116625237_o (2) beds in the backyards of San Jose residents. After graduating last year, I moved to the Los Angeles area and completed my first year of service with the AmeriCorps VISTA and UCLA BruinCorps VISTA programs. With UCLA BruinCorps VISTA, I helped establish a college and career center at a middle school in Compton, CA and was able to expose students to the higher education system.  Now, in my second year of VISTA, I am living in San Diego and working with CSU STEM VISTA and CSUPERB to increase student success in STEM. I have no idea where my love of public service is going to take me next, but I am excited to continue the adventure!  Without all of the experiences, connections, and skills that I gained during my undergraduate at Cal Poly, I am confident that my journey in the public service sector would not have been the same.

2171Why I Serve: I have always had a passion for serving others, and I am grateful to my mother for allowing me to pursue this passion. She always encouraged me to give back to others, and found ways to raise money for me to go on missionary trips with my church. My first missionary trip and volunteer experience was in the 8th grade.

I traveled to Vicente Guerrero, Mexico with my church to deliver Christmas presents, clothing, and food to residents of the local community. After that first trip, I was hooked on service and convinced my mother to let me go every Winter Break as my Christmas present. At fifteen, I persuaded her to let me travel to Bangkok, Thailand to work with YWAM (Youth With A Mission) and at the ABBA House, a refuge for young girls at risk to the sex trade in Chaing Mai.

These missionary trips were such a formative experience for me during my teenage years, and gave me a sense of purpose at such a young age. From then on, I have always known that I wanted to dedicate my life to service and find a career path that would allow me to make some sort of difference in the world. Working with the AmeriCorps VISTA program has made my goal of forging my passion and career a reality. I have had opportunities to work with amazing programs like CSU STEM VISTA and CSUPERB, and have seen how these programs have amazing impacts on students within the CSU system. In the future, I want to continue working within the education system, and make my love of serving others a large component of my career.

Advice for AmeriCorps:
1. Get out of your comfort zone if you want to grow!
One of my favorite quotes is that, “great things never came from comfort zones.” I have tried to live by this mantra for the last two years during my service terms with AmeriCorps VISTA. In doing so, I have had an amazing learning experience and have grown both personally and professionally. During my first year as a VISTA, I was exposed to new environments, challenging work scenarios, and some tough individuals. All of these experiences and interactions, however, have changed me for the better into a strong, independent person.

2. Be realistic about finances.

Living on a modest living stipend can be a challenge, but a lack of finances should not deter anyone from joining an AmeriCorps program. There are so many resources available to AmeriCorps volunteers (i.e. social services, food stamps, medi-cal, etc.), and I have learned to not be afraid or embarrassed to take advantage of these resources. I have also found that it is extremely important to set and follow a monthly budget while living on the VISTA stipend. I have had a few emergency situations in the past year, where I needed to spend a large amount of money upfront. Sticking to my monthly budget has allowed me to create a “nest egg” in my savings account, which I have used as an emergency fund. So far, I have not had to put any money onto a credit card and have been fairly successful living on a VISTA stipend.

3. Make sure that YOU are getting something out of your service year.IMG_5945 (1)
I think AmeriCorps programs in general attract a very selfless type of individual, and it is easy for volunteers to get lost in serving others. I have learned that one-sided service will burn you out quickly, especially if you are not gaining anything from the work you are doing. With every new job, I make it a habit to talk with my supervisors about what I want to accomplish for the company, and also what I am hoping to learn in the process. Applying this practice when reviewing the VAD with my VISTA supervisors, has allowed for me to really connect with the work I am doing, and gain the skills that I need to be successful in future positions.

Future Goals/Plans: In the fall, I will begin submitting applications for graduate school. My short-term career goal is to earn a Masters of Arts in Education, with a focus in higher education. I would love to work in a student services program, such as the Admissions or Greek Life. Ultimately, my long-term career goal is to work at the executive level for a university or in the private sector. Some of the positions I am fascinated with are Chief Diversity Officer and Chief Inspiration Officer.

One of my biggest dreams is to start a non-profit or social enterprise that ties in my love of education. My best friend and I have been brainstorming about technology that could help serve college-age students like ourselves (minorities, first generation, low-income, etc.). Our secret goal is to make it onto the Forbes 30 Under 30 in Education list, so we have a lot of work to do within the next six years!IMG_7019


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