Rebecca Hernandez: ‘What I see can be me’


Stanford University Ph.D. student Rebecca Hernandez (Photo by John Todd)

Rebecca Hernandez, a fourth-year Ph.D. student in environmental earth system science at Stanford University, said she believes strongly that “what I see can be me. If you find a role model you can identify with, it’s easier to become the person you want to be.” A first-generation college student who has long mentored younger students, the 31-year-old is devoted to instilling in others a sense of confidence and personal growth so they can realize their full potential.

But it’s been difficult for Hernandez to find a mentor for herself. Of the 18 faculty members in her department, there is only one underrepresented minority professor. There are 51 Ph.D. students, and of those, just three – Hernandez, a Hispanic student and a Filipino student – are from underrepresented minority groups.

During her first year at Stanford, in 2010, Hernandez used MentorNet, an online organization that matches STEM students with professionals nationwide, and was paired with a cancer biologist who is a professor at the College of Southern Nevada. “That’s not my major, and she is not a Latina,” said Hernandez, “but knowing she is there for me, even if that school isn’t my home institution, has been quite valuable.”

A doctoral fellow in Stanford’s DARE (Diversifying Academia, Recruiting Excellence) program, which prepares underrepresented minority graduate students and women for the academic profession through fellowships, faculty mentors and seminars, Hernandez said she has found tremendous “inspiration and support,” yet no Latinas in her specific STEM field.

It would be “magic,” said Hernandez, if someone with her demographics who went through the career trajectory she wants to take – perhaps a professor in the California Alliance’s new cross-institutional community – could say, “’If you do this, this and this, you might get there.’ Then, with that morale boost, I could focus without distractions on my research and feel a little more security.”

“The applicant pool is so competitive for academic tenure track positions, and it can be a greater challenge for women and minorities in STEM fields,” she said. “We need more women, more people of color, and a diverse body of intellectuals and academics in our faculty demographics to bring up the next generation.”