In 2007, Luis Hernández transferred from community college to UC Berkeley as an anthropology major, just three years after his return from the Marine Corps. Luis is now a staff member at UC Berkeley, working as the Academic Achievement Counselor with Cal Veterans, where his experiences as a veteran and Cal alumnus inform his interactions with students everyday. The Wisdom Café sat down with Luis, who shared his story as a first-generation immigrant, veteran, and Cal alum, in order to understand the crucial role he plays in the campus and staff communities.
Luis was born in Puerto de Tela, Honduras and lived there until he was four years old, when his family moved all around California. He tells us he “wasn’t the greatest student” in high school, and wasn’t really sure what he wanted to do. “I didn’t know about the community college system. My parents always pushed for us to get an education, but they didn’t know what the college application process was like. They had no knowledge to be able to push us in the right direction.” His school wasn’t the most helpful either; he felt written off by the college counseling system. “It was a big high school, but it’s my feeling … that if you weren’t on track to be going to a four-year university, the counselors really didn’t pay much attention to you.”
He found the Marine Corps after his brother talked about enlisting, but originally decided against it. Later on, a friend suggested Luis check it out, and he did. When his brother learned that he was enlisting, he decided to join too, “My brother and I went to bootcamp together on the buddy program.” Luis scored high on the ASVAB (Armed Forces Vocational Aptitude Battery), which qualified him for a greater array of job options to select from in the Corps. “About a month before I was going to graduate, a couple months before I was set to move to Arizona,” he says chuckling a bit, “I joined the Marine Corps.”
Luis returned from the Marine Corps in 2004 and transferred to Cal in 2007. When he graduated, the recession was palpable and jobs were hard to come by. He began as a volunteer, teaching computer literacy to ESL students in Hayward, and later worked with homeless veterans through Goodwill of Silicon Valley, helping them to get employment and housing and later becoming a case manager and focusing more on the veterans’ mental health. During Luis’ time as a student, the Cal Veterans program was just getting started and he interned for Ron Williams (Program Director) to recruit veterans to Berkeley. “It was basically just Ron in his office at that time” he tells us.
Some time later, Luis came back to Cal as the Academic Achievement Counselor for Veterans Services. “At first it was a little challenging,” he tells us, “At my previous job, everyone I worked with were veterans and all the staff were veterans, so we had a different work culture. We operated very differently, so coming here and having to adapt [to the new environment] at first was pretty difficult.” He had to adjust to new structures and formats for meetings. At Cal, he says, the meeting process is more flexible and democratic, so there are more opportunities to give input. “There’s definitely a chain of command here, but it’s not as [influenced by the] military. “Being both a Cal student and employee…has its benefits and it also has its flaws. I put [Berkeley] on a pedestal – I love working here, and it does come with its challenges.”
One of those challenges is adjusting to the new SIS system. He admits, “I’ve been here for two and a half years, and the beginning of this semester was very tough. We’re still dealing with a lot of the challenges that come with going from multiple systems to one system.” These challenges can be felt all over campus as staff, faculty, and students are adapting to the new class registration and financial systems. “There’s a learning curve,” says Luis, “And I understand why we’re doing it. It’s challenging, especially to understand how it effects our students.” To overcome the challenge, Luis says he tries to “become as knowledgeable as possible” about the new system and its subsequent effects. “Having patience and knowing it’s here to stay… You can’t get frustrated with things you can’t control. That’s something I learned a long time ago – it’s part of the military.”
“You can’t get frustrated with things you can’t control. That’s something I learned a long time ago.”
As far as his particular role on campus, Luis says, “Every day is a little different.” If he doesn’t have a meeting, he has an open-door policy all the time, and if students come in, he says, “I stop whatever I’m doing to help them out.” It’s clear from Luis’ personal background and his role as an Academic Achievement Counselor with Cal Veterans that he is very other-oriented. His position has several moving parts: he helps students with academic questions and challenges, including with financial aid. In addition, “I currently supervise 6 peer advisors who staff the center and co-supervise 6 who are outreach peer advisors.” He also trains outreach peer advisors to recruit veterans from community colleges, providing information about what educational options are available to them. He connects with current and prospective students, even coaching them on how to network and get jobs after graduating.
“Without my experiences as a veteran, I don’t even know if I would have been hired,” he says. Being a veteran helps him build a sense of trust with veterans trying to come to Cal, as well as those that are already here. He confides, “They know I’ve gone through similar experiences that they have,” and yet he still has to “step back and try to see things from other perspectives” on a daily basis, as many Berkeley staff do.
Beyond his work on campus, Luis contributes still more to the local community through outreach work with middle school kids in Oakland. The most important thing for him is being able to give back to students, “I never pictured myself being able to come here… everybody knew what Berkeley was and knows only the best students come here. Being able to give back to folks who come from similar situations has been pretty great.”