Since 2015, Joanna Hernandez has been an essential member of UCI’s Student Success Initiatives (SSI) team. As SSI’s Assistant Director, Joanna works with SSI counselors and coordinators to provide support and supervision to several student-facing programs. This includes First-Generation Student Programs, Transfer Success Programs, the DREAM Scholars Program, the Gateway Scholars Program, the Foster Youth Resilience in Education Program, the Student Parents and Families Program, the Bridge Scholars Program and the Second-Year Transitional Experience Program. This year, Joanna will also take on a leadership role at UCI as an incoming co-chair for the Chicano Latino Staff Association.
To highlight Joanna’s incredible work in service of UCI’s diverse student body, we interviewed her to learn more about her role at SSI and the personal experiences that brought her here.
Q: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and the path that led you to UCI?
A: I was born in Houston, Texas but grew up as a Cali girl in the San Fernando Valley. At the age of six, my mother was impacted by substance abuse and was no longer able to care for me. Since my father was absent from my life, I entered the foster care system. Fortunately, I was extremely blessed, and my grandmother took guardianship over me.
During this time, I developed a love for education. It provided me with validation, offered me a creative outlet and connected me with amazing educators that took a vested interest in my well-being. After high school, I attended UC Santa Barbara (UCSB) where I completed my B.A. in Sociology and Latin American and Iberian Studies with a minor in Applied Psychology. After that, I worked for three years as an academic advisor at California State University, Northridge before attending the University of Michigan (UM) for my master’s in Higher and Postsecondary Education. After graduating from UM, I worked as an Education Opportunity Program counselor at my alma mater UCSB for four years before coming to UCI.
Q: How did you get started at UCI and SSI?
A: I first started at UCI as the Director of the TRIO Scholars Program in 2015. I was extremely excited to provide oversight to a federal grant program that supports historically underrepresented students in achieving academic success. Managing the TRIO Program helped sharpen my data tracking and reporting on academic achievement metrics such as persistence, graduation rates and academic performance. In 2018, I got the opportunity to apply these skills as SSI’s Assistant Director.
Q: What are some of the things you have accomplished as Assistant Director?
A: One of the things I’m proud of is my work in developing SSI’s transfer services. I’ve helped develop a transfer team that acknowledges the intersectional identities of transfer students. I’ve also joined the UC Transfer Student Center Coalition in an effort to generate more visibility and support for transfer students across the UC system.
I also introduced quarterly reports that team members complete. These reports feed into an end-of-year report that documents students’ academic persistence, graduation rates and engagement, as well as program accomplishments. This helps to highlight SSI’s program performance and demonstrates the added value our programs provide to student experiences.
Recently, I’m also proud of the proactive approach we took to quickly transition to online learning, as a result of the pandemic. I developed training for team members and also supported the onboarding of our programs to Canvas and our project management system to Trello. Additionally, we pushed up our admissions process so students and staff members could have more time to adjust to our online platforms.These efforts ensured that students could continue to access SSI services even in this remote environment.
Q: What makes you most excited about your role at SSI?
A: I’m excited to support SSI counselors and coordinators in developing excellent programs that promote student academic success, career exploration and holistic development. My lived and work experiences have fortified my commitment to the field, strengthened my understanding of the institutional barriers that impact historically underrepresented students and reinforced my dedication to ensuring student success. I’m thrilled that I have the opportunity to apply what I’ve learned over the course of my career about historically underrepresented students and to advocate for their needs.
Q: You’ve worked in higher education for over 10 years. What motivates you to continue this work?
A: I strongly believe in the transformative power of higher education, as it has empowered me to change the trajectory of my own life. At the beginning of my career, I was told to think about how I wanted to change the world around me. I decided that I wanted to dedicate myself to serving underrepresented students because they are filled with tremendous potential. These students do not have the benefit of having a parent or extended family member who can assist them in tapping into a career field or “hooking them up” with an internship. In fact, many first-generation students are trying to attend college to not only help themselves but to bring economic stability to their families as well.
When these students succeed, they don’t just transform their personal lives. They influence their communities as well. The students who come to SSI help set the bar for their siblings and extended family members and give others a sense that attending UCI is a real possibility. By graduating from UCI, these students will have access to higher-paying jobs, better health insurance and increased economic stability. Research also shows college graduates have a higher rate of civic engagement, lower divorce rates and better pathways to career advancement.
I may never cure cancer, but maybe one of our brilliant students will—that’s what motivates me.