Living the Dream

Dream Luncheon celebrates UC Santa Barbara’s Hispanic community
Jose Hernandez Photo: Matt Perko

In less than three decades, NASA astronaut and UC Santa Barbara alumnus José Hernández has achieved more than what most people dream of accomplishing in a lifetime. He spent 14 days in space in 2008, wrote a book, developed digital equipment to detect breast cancer, ran (and lost) a race for Congress and gave his name to a middle school in his California hometown. Recently, he started the Reaching for the Stars Foundation to provide STEM education opportunities to minority students.

This weekend, Hernández was honored with the Distinguished Alumni Award at the Dream Luncheon hosted by the UC Santa Barbara Alumni Association at the Corwin Pavilion. The sold-out event celebrating the University’s achievement as a Hispanic-Serving Institution was a benefit for the Dream Scholars Fund for underprivileged and underrepresented UCSB students.

Before the speeches and the accolades at the luncheon, Hernández shook hands with students, embraced old friends from his UC Santa Barbara days, and talked to families who traveled great distances to meet the spaceman from Stockton, California.

The son of migrant farmers who worked the California circuit, Hernández was twelve years old when he learned to speak fluent English. Until a school teacher urged his father to put down roots in Stockton, his family moved countless times to follow the crops – and the work – in order to survive. A first generation college student, Hernández graduated from UC Santa Barbara in 1986 with a master’s degree in electrical and computer engineering. He went on to work at the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, and tried – and failed – eleven times to become a NASA astronaut. On his twelfth attempt, Hernández was assigned to the crew of the Space Shuttle mission STS-128.

Congressman Tony Cárdenas, also a UC Santa Barbara engineering alumnus, called Hernández the embodiment of the American dream. “The sky’s the limit, we always say,” said Cárdenas. “But José has proved the sky is not the limit. Very few people can say `I’ve orbited the Earth.’ The sky is no longer the limit.”

Both raised by immigrant parents, Cárdenas and Hernández became good friends at UC Santa Barbara. The audience at the luncheon laughed as the congressman and the astronaut made jokes about their divergent career paths in their speeches. “I tried emulating him and then made the mistake of trying to top him,” said Cárdenas.

“Keep trying, brother,” said Hernández when he took the stage.

HSI: Past, Present and Future

Past and PresentPhoto: Terry Wimmer
Los Ingenieros alumni from across generations

Just watching the rapport between the two Hispanic leaders and hearing their stories was a delight for many students and recent graduates in the audience.

“To learn about two Latino men who are professionals and who are role models for a lot of us students – it’s amazing,” said Hector Basulto, who graduated this year with a degree in sociology. Basulto was mentored by UCSB sociology professor Victor Rios, who made sure his former student was able to attend the event. “As a Latino, I needed to see this. We all do.”
Now working full-time at Montecito Union Elementary School, Basulto hopes to be that bridge for other Hispanic students to achieve success. “I feel like I can create a pathway for a lot of these undergraduate students who share the same tough background.”

Former UC Santa Barbara director of admissions Bill Villa '69 remembered when there were only 144 Hispanic students enrolled at the University in 1967. “It took 45 years to meet the 20 percent minimum enrollment,” said Villa during his opening remarks at the luncheon. “I am very proud UCSB achieved HSI – it is one of the highlights of my career.” Hispanic students now make up 27 percent of the total student population enrolled at UC Santa Barbara this school year.

“We became HSI because we were able to stand on your shoulders,” said acting Dean of Undergraduate Studies Carl Gutiérrez-Jones, pointing to alumni in the audience. “Now we need to continue to level the playing field.”

“We should dream big,” said Hernández after he accepted the Distinguished Alumni Award. “But we owe it to ourselves to work hard for it. Anything is possible as long as you have the perseverance. Sky’s not the limit -- the stars are. I’m living proof of that.”
Alberto Posadas, who now works as Mitsubishi Electric’s regional sales manager for the western U.S. and Latin America, received his undergraduate degree in engineering the same year Hernández graduated with his masters in 1986. “It is phenomenal that UCSB is now a Hispanic Serving Institution. When I was here in the early eighties, that wasn’t the case – but that didn’t stop a lot of us.”

Posadas got to know Hernández as a colleague in the student organization Los Ingenieros (LI), a support system established in 1978 for Hispanic engineering students. The organization has since grown to include all STEM majors.

Freshman Dorian Bruch, a chemical engineering major, just joined the group. “This is important to me because I’m going to be a scientist in the near future,” he said. “I came here to find out what it’s like to succeed in the scientific community.” He hopes to one day develop a vaccine or a cure.

Recent Hispanic alumni already feel the difference in campus attitudes toward their community. “It’s a step in the right direction,” said Manuel Perez, a former LI member who graduated with a degree in computer engineering in 2014. “When I look back to when I came here as a freshman, the atmosphere was very different.”

Perez’s friend and fellow LI alum Alfonso Millan graduated the same year with a degree in mechanical engineering.  “Something like this, I would have never imagined it when I was going to school here,” said Millan, now working as a mechanical engineer in San Jose. “There’s still a struggle – but it seems like for the first time, you can focus on being a student.”

Dream, On.

Alumni Photo: Terry Wimmer
Former UCSB director of admissions Bill Villa, '69 speaks on UCSB’s recognition as a Hispanic-Serving Institute

Like the congressman and the astronaut, Millan is also the son of migrant workers. On campus, Millan turned to another support group for underrepresented students: IDEAS (Improving Dreams Equality Access and Success), an organization for undocumented students.

IDEAS was founded by Laura Flores, who graduated with a global studies degree in 2010. She was one of the first students who championed the Dream Scholarship Fund established in 2013. “It’s nice to back to a space that is more welcoming to undocumented students like myself,” she said. “When I started at UCSB there was no financial aid for undocumented students and essentially there wasn’t a lot of support. It’s refreshing to see that the work that I have done on campus has made an impact in this community. I’m glad I stuck through it.”

Three hundred undocumented students from different cultural backgrounds are enrolled at UC Santa Barbara this school year. “For first generation migrant students, scholarships are the only way to make it,” said Habiba Simjee, an attorney who works as UCSB’s undocumented student services coordinator.

Student leaders like Associated Student Advocate General Joseline Garcia want to keep pushing for progress. “A lot of my fellow students are undocumented,” said Garcia, a senior majoring in global studies with a minor in black studies. “I’ve heard a lot of my peers dropped out, just because a lot of services weren’t getting to them. Personally, I believe education is a right, I don’t it should be privatized and I don’t think it should be a commodity. Seeing these stories and hearing their struggles motivates me. And my family are counting on me to make that extra step. Like Jose Hernández’s parents, they’re took the first steps for success in the second generation.”

The last speaker on the program, Simjee found herself addressing a room full of allies -- from students still living the experience to alumni who have been there before. “The community is coming together and really showing we have important goals for diversity and inclusiveness,” she said. “I felt that there was great energy in the room when we spoke about the Dream Scholarship and what we want to accomplish.” 

See Gallery Images

AlumniPhoto: Terry Wimmer
NASA astronaut José Hernández with student leaders, IDEAS members and campus advocates

Alumni Photo: Terry Wimmer
Hernández receives Distinguished Alumni award from Cárdenas

For more images, please visit the Dream Luncheon Image Gallery here.


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