Campus & Community

Learning to fly – and teaching others

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Hernández ’04 plans to find ways for poor students in Mexico to continue their education

When Hernández applied to Exeter, she also applied to a program called ‘A Better Chance.’ The program helps minority students to go from public middle schools to private high schools. ‘I want to bring that idea to Mexico,’ she says. Staff photo Kris Snibbe/Harvard News Office)

Maribel Hernández’s parents moved their three children to Houston, Texas, from Mexico City when she was 13. They intended to learn English and then move back to Mexico; being bilingual would open more doors in Mexico, and help them to get better jobs and earn more money. This was not to be.

Hernández did not speak English when she moved to the States. But by the time Phillips Exeter Academy came to her middle school to recruit, she was in the honors program. Her counselor chose 10 students from the program to go to the Exeter presentation.

When she sat down with the family for dinner on the day of the Exeter recruitment, she told them about the presentation and that she was thinking of applying. The moment she mentioned that the school was a boarding school located in New Hampshire, her mother burst into tears.

“My mother said she couldn’t bear to live far away from me,” Hernández said. She quickly explained that she was only thinking about it, and that it was very expensive, and that she probably would not be accepted anyway. Hernández felt she didn’t speak English fluently enough to apply; she’d been speaking English for only two and a half years at that point and her greatest fear was that she would wake up one morning having forgotten how to speak it. Nonetheless, her counselor persuaded her to apply. Hernández was accepted to Exeter and awarded a full scholarship. “After I got the scholarship, there was no turning back,” she said. The Hernández family decided to stay in the States.

Hernández thought that all of the United States was going to be just like Houston – where there was plenty of Mexican food, people speaking Spanish, and a strong Latino culture. How wrong she was.

Her first day in Exeter, she looked for a radio station in Spanish, but couldn’t find one. She thought it was because she had a small radio that just wasn’t picking up the stations. She then looked for TV stations in Spanish-nothing. So she decided to walk around town. Exeter, New Hampshire, is very small. There was no one who looked like her, no signs in Spanish, and nary a Mexican food joint in sight. “It was a huge transition,” she said.

It was a fulfilling four years, however, even though she missed her family. Hernández grew as a leader at Exeter. In addition to her studies, she was the New York Times and Boston Globe customer service campus representative, and worked as a legislative intern for the late U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.).

Harvard bound

At application time, still modest to a fault, Hernández applied to 10 colleges, not expecting to get in to any of them. But she figured that the more applications she sent out, the greater the chance that she would get accepted to at least one. She got into Stanford first. “I was superexcited,” she said. She called her mother to tell her the good news. “She didn’t know what Stanford was,” said Hernández. “Mom, that’s where the President’s daughter [Chelsea Clinton] is going,” she said. Her mother told her to call again when Harvard accepted her. Harvard she knew. “I tried to explain to her, even if Harvard does not take me in, Stanford is not a bad thing.”

Hernández, a social studies major with minors in French and Latin American studies, got her green card her freshman year at Harvard and immediately went to Mexico to visit her extended family.

She misses the people in Mexico, and the food. “It’s a different atmosphere,” she said. “It feels like in the United States, things are more rushed. In Mexico, it’s a little more laid-back. There’s less emphasis on getting ahead. In Mexico, yes, you want to do better, but take it easy.” And she misses the family events and parties. “The family in Mexico is very important,” she said. “I don’t see that as much here. Here the emphasis is on the individual. I miss that close family connection. We used to go to my grandmother’s for dinner three or four times a week. And we didn’t live close … but we went to Grandma’s.”

Hernández is poignantly aware of the differences between the two cultures. “It’s been weird becoming a Mexican-American, because when I first came, I was a Mexican,” she said. This realization dawned on her while at Harvard, and has given birth to a new aspect of her personality.

“When I was at Exeter, I didn’t want to get involved with the Latino groups, because I already knew that side of me,” she explained. “When I came to Harvard, I didn’t feel that there was a lot of representation or a lot of support for Mexican-Americans.” Consequently, she served as president and finance commissioner of RAZA, whose mission is to share the Mexican culture with the Harvard community and represent political issues that concern the Mexican community, and more broadly, the Latino community.

Hernández’s favorite thing about having gone to Harvard, she said, is that it’s made her an activist. “I didn’t used be. I was always afraid of being radical… . I was afraid of just complaining and not coming up with solutions.” Coming to Harvard made her realize that she needed to strike a balance between positive and negative. “I do owe it to a lot of people to speak up,” she said. “I cannot remain quiet because I have been blessed with a lot of opportunities, so that obligates a lot of responsibilities. Everything I’ve gotten by being here, the education – I have to translate that into action.” And perhaps most significantly, Hernández said, Harvard has made her a “conscious citizen.”

After graduation, Hernández is going to travel to France. She received the Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Fellowship, a grant that encourages personal growth. “One of my dreams, and in fact, one of my mom’s dreams, is to go to France,” Hernández said. “She speaks French, but she doesn’t speak English.” So after she won the fellowship, she said to her mother, “You’re coming with me.”

Not content to spend time in Marseilles just “thinking about herself,” Hernández does have another motivation. Quelle surprise! “I want to compare the French immigrant population with the American immigrant population and see what their experiences are like.” France, Hernández pointed out, is second only to the United States in its number of resident immigrants. France tends to criticize the United States’ immigration policy, she said, “but in France, it seems to me, at least, that there’s a lot more racism. It’s overt. It’s permitted.” She hopes that being able to see it from a different side will give her a new perspective into her own immigrant experience.

After Marseilles, Hernández will attend Princeton University for a master’s degree in public policy. And after that? “I don’t think I will go back to Mexico to live,” she said. “The inequalities in Mexico are very marked … . I came from the lower end and I feel that with this education, I will be at the other end, and I don’t want to be in that position. You’re supposed to be with the ‘elite’ and you’re not part of the other people anymore.”

Ever a woman of the people, she has big dreams for her future. When she applied to Exeter, she also applied to a program called “A Better Chance.” The program helps minority students to go from public middle schools to private high schools. “I want to bring that idea to Mexico,” she said. There are many students in Mexico who are well qualified and driven, but instead of being able to go to school, they have to work because the poverty is so pervasive. Hernández would like to start a program that provides the resources poor students need to continue their education.