“I came to this university with nothing, and it has given me everything,” said senior David Horacio Hernandez, a double major in political science and American studies and ethnicity at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.
Migrating to Los Angeles from Jalisco, Mexico, Hernandez’s parents taught him “the value of hard work and the meaning of sacrifice,” he said.
A first-generation college student from Culver City, Calif., Hernandez experienced intense culture shock when he transferred to USC in 2010. He had just completed two years at Santa Monica College, where he still had friends from his high school years, but USC was “the big leagues.”
He added: “When I first got to USC, I would never have thought I’d be in a position to help, empower, represent and be a voice for others. USC has given me a platform to perform those things.”
One year later, in 2011, the Obama administration recognized Hernandez’s commitment to the country’s youth by naming him one of the White House’s Champions of Change. Through the program, which honors everyday Americans of all ages doing extraordinary things for their communities, Hernandez participated in a roundtable discussion at the White House. During the same trip to Washington, D.C., he attended the Hispanic Heritage Foundation’s Latinos on Fast Track program, which identifies future Latino leaders in key professions.
Through internships with the U.S. Office of Personnel Management in Washington, in the district office of Rep. Karen Bass, and with Project Vote Smart, Hernandez focused on a life of service. Hernandez also interned with Strategic Actions for a Just Economy (SAJE), working to champion tenants rights, stop housing discrimination and support development projects in South Los Angeles.
“In American studies, these are a lot of the things we explore — the disenfranchisement of people or segregation,” he said. “I’m bilingual, so I would go on a lot of these field visits and talk with the residents. It inspired me and really lit the fire for me because after that, I just became relentless in my pursuit of service.”
In April, Hernandez spent a week in Dubai at an Education Without Borders conference, where he presented on LA’s Latino youth population and access to education.
“It was awesome to represent my country, my university and my Latino community,” he said.
In 2012, through the OpportunityNation Scholars program, which identifies young activists striving to increase access to the American Dream in their communities and on their campuses, he participated in the OpportunityNation Summit in the U.S. capital.
This year, he served as a delegate to the United Nations’ social commission for poverty eradication and youth unemployment.
At USC, Hernandez acts as director of civic engagement for the USC Latino Student Assembly. He previously served as a student liaison to the USC Latino Forum, which promotes recruitment and retention of Latino students, and he was the campus representative for the Clinton Global Initiative at USC. From 2010 to 2011, he was also a member of Chicanos for Progressive Education, a campus organization that sends undergraduates to mentor South LA high school students and answer questions about college.
Hernandez also serves the USC community as a resident assistant for the Latino Floor, where he sees himself in the 33 freshmen who live there.
“Some of my residents are the first in their families to go to college,” he said. “They’re driven and motivated, and I’m proud of them all.”
Student Development Director Carol Schmitz, who works with Hernandez in his capacity as a residential assistant, finds him to be extraordinarily humble despite the success he’s achieved at USC.
“David has been having a phenomenal experience at USC,” she said. “He’s managed to pack in some amazing experiences, like the Champions of Change award he won at the White House in 2011 or serving on a committee in New York at the United Nations. Yet he still walks around USC wondering how he got here.”
After he graduates, Hernandez will work with Teach for America in Los Angeles. He hopes to earn a graduate degree from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government before returning to Los Angeles to serve his city as an elected official.
“My pursuit has been rewarded in ways only imagined,” he said. “For that, I am forever grateful to my university and for being able to call myself a Trojan.”