Champion of Change

USC Dornsife junior David Horacio Hernandez is lauded by the White House for his education advocacy and travels to Capitol Hill to offer ideas about how to better prepare minorities for college.
Ambrosia Viramontes-Brody

USC Dornsife junior David Horacio Hernandez couldn’t believe what he was reading. Poor grammar and misplaced punctuation signaled a hastily written essay.

A first-generation transfer student from Santa Monica City College, Hernandez had been critiquing his community college classmate’s essay in Fall 2008 as part of an entrepreneur leadership class. He was surprised to learn his classmate spent three weeks writing and revising the piece. The realization that some students were graduating from high school without basic writing skills set Hernandez on a path to resolve disparities in education.

“Speaking with students when I was in community college hit home about how unfair it is that the area you live in dictates what high school you attend,” said Hernandez, a double major in political science and American studies and ethnicity in USC Dornsife.

“I remember then thinking these disparities need to be addressed,” said Hernandez, 21. “I can help empower students by being a mentor to high school students in inner city schools.”

At USC, Hernandez is a member of Chicanos for Progressive Education (CPE), a campus organization that sends undergraduates to South Los Angeles’ overcrowded and underfunded schools with high dropout rates to provide mentorship to high school students. The club promotes higher education and provides guidance and answers questions about getting into a college or university.

President Barack Obama’s administration recognized Hernandez’s commitment to the country’s youth in September by naming him one of the White House’s Champions of Change. The program honors everyday Americans of all ages doing extraordinary things for their communities. The champions are invited to the White House to share their ideas during a roundtable discussion.

Hernandez was encouraged to apply to become one the White House’s Champions of Change in August.  He was chosen with 11 fellow students from various parts of the country to attend the Champions of Change roundtable discussion held Sept. 16.

“It was really humbling to be recognized by the White House,” said Hernandez who was participating in the annual summit for the Hispanic Heritage Foundation’s Latinos on Fast Track (LOFT) program in Washington, D.C., earlier that week.

“It made me believe that I’m a rooted voice in my community. Being honored by the people I hope to work for someday made me more passionate about my dreams.”

The Culver City, Calif., native said he felt at home attending the roundtable meeting with White House administrators such as Juan Sepúlveda, director for the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanic Americans, and other “Champions of Change” from states including Washington, Maryland and Florida. They discussed issues facing Latinos today and how to improve education for minorities.

“To see people from different parts of the country organizing, educating and making people aware gives me hope that one day I will be able to change social inequalities,” he said.

Migrating to Los Angeles from Jalisco, Mexico, Hernandez’s parents instilled in him the importance of education at a young age. Like many teenagers, Hernandez listened when his father said education opened doors, but he admitted that he didn’t really hear him. The realization came after he accompanied his father, Alfonso, to work one day. He watched his father, a busboy at a Pacific Palisades country club, wash dishes and wipe down tables. That helped put things into perspective for the younger Hernandez.

“I got choked up watching how hard my dad was working for us,” said Hernandez, the youngest of three children. “I realized I needed to make the most of my opportunities.”

Just as his parents did for him, he talks to high school students about the importance of an education. He intends to dispel beliefs that college is out of reach for inner-city students.

“I want to tell students you don’t have to be at the mercy of your circumstances or let your circumstances define you,” he said. “You define your circumstances.”

At Santa Monica City College, Hernandez didn’t believe he could attend a private institution until one of his professors, who saw his potential, encouraged him to apply and educated him about funding opportunities including scholarships. At USC, George Sanchez, professor of American studies and ethnicity (ASE), and history, and Manuel Pastor, professor of geography and ASE, have empowered Hernandez. Sonia Rodriguez, an ASE senior administrator has also seen much promise in Hernandez.

“He has an innate courage that allows him to push through situations that can hold other students back,” Rodriguez said. “I am very proud of him. David is like a sponge just soaking up the experience of coming to USC.”

A stickler for finishing what he starts, the affable Trojan has set his sights on interning in the White House this summer and eventually working with Teach For America Corps and earning a graduate degree from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. Wherever these next few years take him, Hernandez wants to someday represent his community in a bigger way — possibly as mayor of Culver City or Los Angeles.

“I feel connected to the city and believe in empowering and inspiring the homegrown population,” he said. “You can create change in the communities that helped shape you.”