Featured Alumnae: sisters Alejandra, B.A. ’13, and Melissa, B.A. ’16, Hernandez
Alejandra Hernandez is a young Latina with roots in the Valley Central of Oaxaca, Mexico. Currently, she serves as the lead project coordinator in the Environmental Health Department at 16th Street Community Health Centers in Milwaukee, Wis. In a typical day, she goes door to door in Milwaukee’s south side providing free lead testing services for young children. She educates community members about lead hazards and prevention. In addition, she works on a research project, Growing Healthy Soils for Healthy Communities, studying lead in soil and enhancing the community’s health literacy in safe gardening practices. Her interest lies in making communities healthy, and she believes in health as a human right. She received her Bachelor of Arts in Biology from the University of Dallas in 2013.
Her sister Melissa Hernandez graduated from the University of Dallas in 2016 with a degree in Politics and a concentration in Spanish. Melissa currently serves as the Dallas-Fort Worth Coordinator for a national, non-profit organization, Mi Familia Vota. She works to increase civic engagement within the Latino community and other allied communities by promoting citizenship, community action, and voter education and registration in order to empower these communities to exercise their political power.
Q: Many UD students have an interest in working with nonprofits to better local communities and enrich the lives of the underserved. How have each of your experiences been working for nonprofits? What are the best aspects? What are the challenges?
AH: The best aspect of working for a nonprofit is driving the work to help address needs of the communities we serve. At 16th Street, we focus on initiatives that will improve the community’s environmental, physical, social and economic well-being. The mission and values of a nonprofit lay the necessary framework for dynamic and inspired work.
The challenge in nonprofit work is the balancing act between designing programs that align with the nonprofit’s mission, commitment to community members and the parameters of funding. Furthermore, there is so much work to be done all the time, so staff capacity is definitely a challenge. MH: You definitely don’t work for a nonprofit because of the money-that is for sure, but rather because you are working for something that you truly believe [in], something you want to change, people you want to empower. The best aspect of my work is meeting people from all walks of life — the immigrant, the refugee, the citizen, the community organizer, the activist — and hearing the kaleidoscope of life stories.
Post-election, there was a lot of uncertainty in the community. People were afraid and lacked information. It was beautiful to see different community organizations coming together to provide events like Know Your Rights sessions and Citizen Workshops. Moreover, we will continue to advocate actions to defend and protect the vulnerable in our community. To witness and be on the front line of a united effort to preserve the dignity of the human person and their rights will always be the best part of working with Mi Familia Vota.
One of the biggest challenges that I have encountered is a lack of resources. Nonprofits heavily rely on donors. With that in mind, I have had to do the most with what little I have, but you would be surprised what is possible with very little. Like any UD student, we know that a great flame can follow a tiny spark!
Q: When did each of you know you wanted careers in public service? How has your UD education prepared you for your work?
AH: UD’s Core program prepares you for any career due to its strong emphasis in critical thinking, reading and writing skills. As a biology student, I was able to benefit from having passionate teachers and mentors. Dr. Marcy Brown Marsden was one of my mentors, and through her work she showed me how to bridge science and community work. I often volunteered with her to lead night hikes, BioBlitz and Earth Day events in the Dallas Campion Trail.
Being a product of Catholic education, I often reflect on how to use Catholic values in my day-to-day job. So I ask myself, “how can I accompany the poor and advocate for the marginalized? How do we think of the poor not as objects of our actions, but rather as partners whom we interact and collaborate with?”
MH: I have to thank UD and its professors for providing invaluable critical thinking, reading and writing skills, which are applicable wherever you find yourself. In my work, this has been useful in writing press releases, public speaking, giving presentations and problem solving.
I do have to give a shout out to Dr. [Aida] Ramos and Dr. [Mark] Petersen for strengthening my knowledge and desire to seek out a career that helps alleviate social exclusion and furthers the development of all peoples. The relationship that UD fosters between student and professor is also one that makes UD a unique place.
Q: Did your childhood, as the children of immigrant parents, influence your career choices?
AH: Absolutely. As a child of immigrant parents, all my choices are influenced by the example and vision of my parents. My parents lacked opportunities and were unable to realize their own dreams, in order to make sure my siblings and I would live a life of dignity. Therefore, I knew that whatever my energies were put into, they would serve two purposes: enhance the dignity of people and feed my inquisitive mind.
MH: Of course. I am consistently reminded of the gifts and privilege that I have because of the sacrifice of my parents. They have enhanced my quality of life, providing me an education and furthermore empowering me to work towards my goals. Personally knowing the experience and struggles of the immigrant has instilled in me a desire to alleviate some of those struggles.
Q: What advice would you give to current students or recent graduates of UD?
AH: Embrace diversity. Listen. Ask questions. Put yourself in uncomfortable positions. Learn how to accompany people. Reflect on your intentions.
MH: Be open to dialogue. Be willing to give those people a chance to share their experiences, their struggles. Don’t be a bystander, find something you are passionate about and engage.