CMU professor Paul Hernandez: Every child deserves a chance

Paul Hernandez, associate professor of sociology at Central Michigan University

(Editor’s note: This is one in a series of articles profiling recipients of the 2013 MEA Human Rights and Excellence awards.)

Paul Hernandez began his journey affiliated with gangs on the rough streets of Los Angeles.

At school, he watched administrators and teachers direct their attention to the students who were on a college track and disregard the idea that he might have higher aspirations, too.

He was ready to drop out, but teachers and support staff found alternative ways to connect with him and help him see that education was not his enemy. He stayed in school and went on to earn a bachelor’s, master’s and Ph.D. in sociology.

But that’s not where his story ends.

Today, Hernandez, an associate professor of sociology at Central Michigan University, channels the frustrations of his early years into engaging students like him and providing them with opportunities. He reminds students every day that they can reach their goals.

Hernandez created “College 101: Introducing At-Risk Students to Higher Education,” to help struggling middle and high school students. Hernandez, along with his team of student volunteers, help those students discover their passion for learning, and direct it into avenues for success. The experience is life-changing for these students, who go from potential high school dropouts to college students.

Since its creation in 2009, College 101 has helped more than 1500 students in both urban and rural schools throughout Michigan — at no cost to the students or their families. As part of the program, Hernandez visits participating school districts to offer assistance to students and teachers.

Hernandez works from a basis of what he calls “authentic connections.” He encourages students to see who they are and realize the potential they have for success. He coaches teachers to apply humanistic themes in developing relationships with their students. It’s not just about academics — it’s about understanding, as Hernandez helps educators identify both their students’ joys and frustrations. 

Hernandez is working on an expansion of College 101 to include those students who successfully completed high school and are on their way to college. The new component to the program will continue to offer resources and encouragement to keep them motivated to stay in school. This will also give Hernandez the chance to work with other universities and colleges across Michigan.

Hernandez is also studying the college student volunteers who assist him, to learn more about what motivates them to help others.

Hernandez is working on a book that provides a guide and strategies for teachers working with at-risk students.

There’s no question that life could have turned out much differently for Hernandez if it weren’t for people in his life who saw his potential and encouraged him to look beyond the streets for opportunities to succeed. They fueled the drive and passion in him to make his dreams come true. Now, he does the same for students in College 101.

He knows what it feels like to be overlooked and disregarded. He calls himself a “grown-up version” of the students he now serves. He knows what it takes to succeed. And as his mother told him, “He’ll know success when he has brought everyone along with him.”

To recognize his success, MEA is proud to name Hernandez as recipient of its 2013 Elizabeth Siddall Human Rights Award.