Resilient mother of color shatters glass ceiling
On a regular day, Rocio Hernandez wakes up from her few hours of sleep and struggles to get her children up, hoping none of the three wake up sick — there’d be no time to find a sitter nonetheless to get herself to school. After packing their lunches with the help of her husband — who is also off to work — she takes them to school and daycare, then turns around to rush to school, hoping she remembered to bring the homework she stayed up all night doing.
Hernandez tells herself she can catch up on studying during the weekend, though she knows that is a lie. Weekends are for family time. Although her eyes are dry, she forces herself to study with the little energy she has left. She has a scholarship to get use out of, an example to set as a first-generation college graduate, and her Latinx parents like to remind her that “there is work to be done,” in her 16-units worth of classes.
Hernandez does work hard. From graduating high school as valedictorian — while pregnant and one year into remission of ovarian cancer — her life has been a rollercoaster. When she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer at 16, doctors told Hernandez she had little-to-no chance of bearing children, with her odds slimming as the disease progressed.
“Coming from a Latinx family, I always wanted to have kids. So I reached out to my middle school crush,” she laughs. “It was kind of crazy.” He admitted to loving her, too, and agreed to father her children; their first son James was born in Oct. 2013, despite Hernandez’s prognosis. More challenges were to come.
After giving birth to James, Hernandez was temporarily paralyzed from the waist down, complicating her experiences parenting and starting college in Fall 2014.
She had chosen Whittier College over University of Southern California (USC) and Mt. St Mary’s University — all of which had offered her full rides — after touring Whittier College years before which “impacted [her] right from start,” due to its small size, and her finding everyone here “very friendly” and “willing to help.” Whittier’s helpful demeanor is reflected in its Student Disabilities Services, which Hernandez appreciates greatly as she “represent[s] it as much as [she] can.”
As a first-generation college student, Hernandez had trouble navigating the school. “I had no idea [first-year] events existed; I never got to experience things myself firsthand,” she said. “I didn’t know how to register for classes. They gave me the last open classes they had.”
Although Hernandez entered college undeclared, she quickly found guidance in the Spanish department, which greatly supports her strides navigating parenting and college life.
“Diehl Hall is my home,” she says. Program Advisor of Latino Studies and Professor of Spanish Gustavo Geirola inspired her to pursue a Spanish major, and after taking her first social work class that “touched [her] heart from the very beginning,” she pursued a social work minor. Hernandez later added on a Child Development minor, reflecting her dedication to children like her own.
She has also held jobs at the College, working in the Financial Aid department and as a Spanish tutor in the Center for Advising and Academic Success. Additionally, Hernandez has worked as a preschool teacher’s aide since 2016 at Whittier Friends School, specializing in assisting children with disabilities — never “special needs,” she “hate[s] calling it that” — after becoming an Applied Behavior Analysis certified last year.
“I enjoy working with children and seeing a passion in them. I asked myself what I have to do [to work with children] and I did it,” Hernandez says of her career, revealing her work ethic. “The most important years of child development is the first two years. It’s amazing that I can be a part of it and see progress. I’m proud to make parents’ lives easier.”
Still, her own life as a parent comes with its fair share of challenges. Her second son, Jeremiah, was born Dec. 2015, followed by her third son, Jayden, in Sept. 2017. Although she is motivated to succeed by her love for them, Hernandez felt it was impossible to overcome another challenge when she began suffering from anxiety nausea in 2018.
‘Put your feelings to the side,’ ‘just walk away’. These are ideas Hernandez’s family perpetuated about mental health, she believes, due to their Mexican heritage. When her anxiety around school manifested into physical illness via nausea and an inability to eat, resulting in massive weight loss, Hernandez struggled to overcome her mental health stigma and treat her then undiagnosed anxiety, as her countless medical tests read negative.
“It takes control of your life when you can’t control it yourself,” Hernandez says of her anxiety. It was only when Director of Student Health & Wellness Center Stella Wohlfarth told her that she may have anxiety that Hernandez received treatment, though life with anxiety is a day-to-day challenge.
“[People with anxiety] are just pushing through to get to next step. For me, it’s for my kids. It’s good to have this [diagnosed], so I can leave an imprint at Whittier to let people know that they’re not alone. There are so many resources here,” she said.
Hernandez is proud to be graduating this May, after five years of attending Whittier College, held back by taking a semester of maternity leave and difficulty completing a social work internship to attain the major. Instead, she will be minoring in social work, but chooses to continue her education with diligence. Hernandez hopes to receive a master’s degree in the field after graduation, perhaps at USC, which has already accepted her application.
“I’m excited to finally walk,” Hernandez said. “But my favorite thing about Whittier is the Light of Learning Ceremony. [It’s] our initiation to our entire career . . . the fact [that] they do it our senior year symbolizes it’s finally done. [It] really moves me.”
Hernandez will be graduating as a first-generation college student with degrees in three areas of studies — a Spanish major, and child development and social work minors — and three proud children watching her. We all wish her well as she goes forth from Whittier College.