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Jose Hernandez '84 surprises, then inspires LatinX graduates (with video)

May 15, 2020

The annual LatinX graduation ceremony on May 8 had a surprise.

The gathering, of course, had to be virtual. Approximately 270 LatinX students graduated. Many signed on to computers for the ceremony, as did parents, family members, loved ones, friends and Pacificans.

Five minutes into the ceremony, they learned of the commencement speaker: University of the Pacific graduate and NASA astronaut Jose Hernandez ’84. His 15-minute pre-recorded message concentrated on praise for students’ accomplishments and advice on how to succeed moving forward.

“We tried to keep it under wraps as much as possible and I think it definitely was a surprise,” said Jasmin Quiñones, LatinX and Native American Student Success coordinator, who emceed the event from an orchard in Exeter, where her family lives.

“It is always a great time hearing Jose Hernandez speak,” said Jorge Aguiniga, of Stockton, who earned a bachelor of fine arts in graphic design. “He is an example that anyone can be anything they want to. His stories resonate with me because, in a way, we grew up in a similar situation. Jose Hernandez is very inspirational to all the LatinX community as a whole. 

“I think overall it was a great experience. The event served as a reminder and as inspiration that we made it.”

Quiñones said some students requested Hernandez as a speaker after learning there would be no in-person ceremonies due to the coronavirus (COVID 19) pandemic.

“We have received a lot of positive feedback,” she said. “Many of our students grew up knowing about Jose’s story and success. They seemed to be inspired by his message .”

Hernandez, turned down 11 times by NASA before acceptance into the astronaut program, eventually served on the crew of a 14-day mission to the International Space Station in 2009.

He told the students the story of how his father Salvador, a migrant farm worker with a third-grade education, inspired him to follow his dream.

“He sat me down and said, ‘M’ijo, if you want to be an astronaut. You have to do five things. First, define your goals. Know what you want to achieve. Second, recognize how far you are from your goals. Third, draw yourself a road map. You have to know how you are going to get there. Fourth, education. You have to go to college.

“For the fifth, he took me over to the kitchen window and pointed out to the field. He told me ‘you know that effort you put in seven days a week, picking fruits and vegetables? You have to put those same efforts into your education and your job.’

“I would add a sixth element, one of my own. That is perseverance. Never give up on your dreams,” Hernandez said.

Hernandez became teary-eyed several times during the speech. He said he ached for the students who had accomplished so much, but were not able to take part in the usual, in-person commencement activities.

“I know many of you are first-generation college students, just like I was,” he said. “I know your families have so much pride for what you have accomplished.”

Hernandez said the demands of distance learning and social distancing are an opportunity, if handed with proper perspective.

“You have to maintain a positive attitude, and act like the glass is half full,” Hernandez said. “In so many cases, it is a blessing to spend more quality time with family and loved ones. You can create family memories.

“I know the job market is tough right now, but this also is a time to re-visit your goals.”

In closing, Hernandez urged students to focus on their accomplishments with pride.

“You were able to do it. You did it,” he said, wearing his own “Sí se pudo” and LatinX graduation sash. “Congratulations.”

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