Life is a marathon littered with highs and lows. While triumphs are celebrated, failures are often received with dejection and the determination to overcome. For Joe Hernandez, his history of drug addiction and homelessness have become stepping stones on the path to a brighter future.
Hernandez, 29, was raised in Los Angeles by his El Salvadorian mother and stepfather. As far as he can remember, he had an “average Latino lifestyle.” At El Camino Real Charter High School, Hernandez was homecoming king, played safety for varsity football and was a member of the wrestling team. Recruiters from a number of universities sought him out because they had heard of his capabilities.
This fantasy came took a sudden turn when Hernandez’s academics began to drop. Soon after, the all-star was faced with the unthinkable.
Due to the precarious nature of his grades, Hernandez was barred from graduation and had to attend a continuation school to make up the credits he was missing. He then went to study in Illinois his first year of college. Hernandez failed six of the seven classes he had enrolled in because he “did not take it seriously.”
After a rough go in Illinois, Hernandez returned to California where he attempted to juggle community college and work.
“I did what most students do when they [are] caught working a full time job. I figured I would go back to college someday,” Hernandez said. “I decided that I would be living that rat-raised life, living paycheck to paycheck. In that time I got married young, had a kid, and I got stuck.”
The burdens of parenthood mixed with the anxiety of school and pressure from his personal life led Hernandez to what would become his lowest point. Slowly, the drug addiction and alcohol abuse alienated him from his family and loved ones.
“When you’re involved in drugs that’s not an environment you want for your family,” Hernandez said. “One Christmas Day I came home and my wife was gone, my kid was gone, everything was gone.”
Living without his family drove Hernandez to deepen his vice dependency. It was not long before the addiction left him without a home to return to.
Jumping from couch to couch, Hernandez found refuge living with his mother. However, after an altercation with his younger brother over stolen pain medications, Hernandez’s mother kicked him out.
At the age of 24, Hernandez was living on Skid road. He had hit rock bottom and had nowhere and no one to run to.
Despite the aid he received from the government via food stamps and welfare, Hernandez’s desire for alcohol and drugs was bigger than the hunger pains.
“I was that guy outside of the store trading my food stamps for booze. I didn’t know anything else,” Hernandez said. “I had no other answer.”
Unable to face the wreckage left in the wake of his current lifestyle anymore, Hernandez sought out the professional help he would need to “get clean.”
Seven months after his rehabilitation treatment, Hernandez was living rent-free at a center operating under the Plan C initiative. There, he helped teenagers recover from addiction and taught them the tools they would need to live a sober life.
Each step and each young adult Hernandez took under his wing paved the road ahead of him. The confidence and strength he had lost years ago was no longer elusive. Hernandez could feel the weight on his shoulders lessening as his world grew brighter.
Now that he had control of the trajectory of his life, Hernandez decided to return to school after an eight year hiatus.
Driven by his newfound courage, Hernandez enrolled at Pierce College as an International Developmental Studies major. This time he made a point to allot himself enough time to manage his private life work, and his studies. It was the linchpin that led to his downfall in Illinois, so he was determined not to let history repeat itself.
After a number of attempts to crash classes, Hernandez landed a seat in a speech class.
“The lessons that we learn and how we learn them come at a different pace for all of us,” Hernandez said. “For me, it took a great deal of pain and life experience to appreciate an educational setting.”
That first semester back was especially tough for Hernandez.
Dropping out of college had left Hernandez deep in debt and barred him from receiving financial aid. However, he caught a break the following semester. Through the Equal Opportunity Program, Hernandez was able to purchase the books he needed for his classes.
Michael McGee, a former member of both Alpha Gamma Sigma Honor Society and Associated Student Organization, introduced Hernandez to the honors society where he learned how to excel in school and adapt to the college lifestyle.
ASO advisor and Dean of Student Engagement, Juan Carlos Astorga met Hernandez while on a trip to Atlanta, for the “Achieving the Dream” conference this year.
“I’m really excited for him to now be on this other side of his life. He’s got an amazing story of resiliency,” Astorga said. “I’m really proud of all that he has achieved, in spite of all that he’s faced as a young adult to have this gentle caring soul is really beautiful.”
Crystal Kiekel, who is the Director for the Center of Academic Success, first became acquainted with Hernandez when he was organizing the AGS conference. Kiekel was recommended Hernandez by professors for a tutoring job at the CAS.
Kiekel believes Hernandez is a “natural born leader.”
“I’ve always been impressed with not only his leadership skills, but also his amazing heart. He cares deeply about the people he works with,” Kiekel said. “He has been able to break so many barriers, its a quintessential story that every young person should hear, these barriers are temporary setbacks and he embodies that.”
Hernandez, who is the president of the AGS as well as a Peer2Peer mentor, has surpassed the expectations he had when he began attending Pierce. Once homeless and burdened by addiction, Hernandez was awarded a scholarship and was accepted into UCLA for the Fall 2016 semester.
“I said I could never get into UCLA, and the first time I went there I fell in love with the campus,” Hernandez said. “It was an absolute dream for me to be even there. I had slept on the streets and in parks. I had never been introduced to this dimension of living.”