It was about an 80-minute walk for José Hernández from his home to his middle school in the village near San Luis Potos', Mexico.
At that school he had his first English lesson. The teacher pronounced the words as they were written. He didn't know it then, but it was one of the first hurdles he would face when trying to learn the language in California.
"I would repeat the words, and the teacher would say 'No, that's not how you say it,'" said Hernández, a 20-year old junior at CSU Monterey Bay. "Something else I learned from that lesson: not everything is as you see it. It applies to people as well."
Hernández traveled more than 1,800 miles from his hometown to Salinas, but even farther on his educational road. Last month, he was named the Hearst Scholar at CSUMB, one the top honors for students in the CSU system. The award — a $3,000 scholarship and a variety of electronic equipment — is given to one student from each of the 23 CSU campuses. They are judged on financial need, personal hardships and achievements.
Just a week after he traveled to Long Beach to receive the honor, Hernández seems far removed from the excitement. Mid-terms are beginning, so now he has other things on his mind. He's happy, he said, but he has study groups to worry about.
"The best thing about it is this," he says of the award as he softly runs his fingers over a gray laptop computer, smiling widely. "I also got a (video game setup), an MP3 player and a video camera.
Hernández has had a life many would qualify as harsh, but he describes it matter-of-factly. Ever since he can remember he has had responsibilities at home — washing his own clothes and taking care of the family goats.
The responsibilities increased when his father, who was working at a chicken factory in Mississippi, died in 2001. Hernández was 9, the middle of five children his mother had to raise on her own.
Sara Rivera juggled part-time jobs to feed her children — as an all-purpose employee at a restaurant, cleaning houses, selling cactus pads in the market, and sometimes running her own food stand.
"She had time to pick us up from school and cook," Hernández says. "I guess (her hard work) is the reason I want to finish college."
A week after arriving in the United States in July 2005, Hernández's family signed up for English classes at a night school. That made his transition easier when he started El Sausal Middle School the following month. Still, he was enrolled in a beginners class that was hard for him.
"I didn't know anybody," he says. "We knew Spanish like the neighbors, but it wasn't the same neighbors we had before. That was my fear, that's why I didn't say much, why I didn't get involved in school."
Three teachers told Hernández they saw something in him, that he was capable of attending college. He never believed it: his mother only attended kindergarten. His oldest sister dropped out of school to raise a family when she was 14. College was farther from him than San Luis Potos'.
In his junior year, something clicked. His classmates started talking about what college they were hoping to attend. Hernández's counselor told him he was on track to graduate, but he would not get into a four-year college.
He sought a second opinion. If Hernández took higher level classes — pre calculus, advanced placement Spanish, physics — he would get the needed requirements. Hernández took the classes, passed them, and applied to six universities. He was accepted to all of them.
When he first told his mother he wanted to attend college, all she said was "I'm not going to pay. I don't know how you're going to do it. I don't have the money," Hernández said, remembering. "She never said no, but she didn't say yes either. She just respected my decision."
Once at CSUMB, Hernández took a service learning class and began volunteering at the Cesar Chavez Library in east Salinas. Up to then he'd had difficulty choosing his major — business? Liberal studies? — but it was in his volunteering that he also found his calling. He wanted to do community service.
Around the time of his tutoring at the library, administrators with Building Healthy Communities, an initiative aimed at improving the health of east Salinas residents, noticed him and invited him to volunteer and collaborate with their projects. Hernández showed such dedication the project's personnel nominated him to represent Salinas at the launch of Lady Gaga's "Born This Way Foundation" at Harvard University earlier this year.
"He gives back and he goes above and beyond," said Carmen Gil, project manager at the Salinas Building Healthy Communities. The project is a 10-year multi-million dollar initiative in 13 of the most troubled communities in California. Building Healthy Communities has recruited dozens of young people as volunteers to beautify and improve the Alisal area. Gil said Hernández is an example of the project's potential.
"This is what happens when there are opportunities for youth," she said. "You provide positive youth engagement opportunities, and they start developing leadership. That's what we're doing, we're providing positive outlets for youth."
Once incapable of imagining himself in college, Hernández is planning on continuing on to earn a master's degree in social work after he's done with his bachelor's in collaborative health and human services.
Then maybe even a doctorate in educational leadership. At Harvard.
"I've been thinking about it lately," he said, grinning.
Claudia Meléndez Salinas can be reached at 753-6755 or firstname.lastname@example.org.