Higher learning was the furthest thing from Pamela Hernandez’s mind when she was an adolescent and young adult struggling through a life fraught with danger and despair. Abused as a child, and addicted to drugs by her early teens, she eventually spiraled into a perilous existence in a junkyard, where an attacker nearly ended her life, before her unborn child would come to save it.
Hernandez’s mother and father divorced when she was six months old. The only sibling to be raised by her abusive, alcoholic father, she became the recipient of his physical and emotional assaults. By the time she was 18 years old, Hernandez was a parent herself, and she too became an addict; her daily focus was finding ways to “remain high.” At 19 years old, her children in the care of family members, she became homeless.
“During childhood I witnessed many acts of violence that left me feeling very fearful and insecure. As a young adult, my life was even more traumatic because I was physically abused many times,” she admitted. “I tended to gravitate toward people who were not very nice to me. I relied on drugs and alcohol as a way to forget that I felt really lost and lonely inside.”
While living in a junkyard in 1994, an argument with another squatter escalated into an attack that left Hernandez fighting for her life in a hospital, where she remained for two weeks. She eventually returned to the junkyard where she continued to languish in the clutches of alcoholism, drug addiction and hopelessness.
It wasn’t until Hernandez became pregnant with her third child that she made the decision that would change her path, and ultimately, save her life.
“I finally left the junkyard in 1996 when I was six months pregnant. I sought help to save my baby and entered into an outpatient recovery program,” explained Hernandez. “The program enabled me to take baby steps. I gave birth to my baby boy, went back to school, and shortly after moved into a place of my own.”
Continuing to rebuild her life, Hernandez earned her high school diploma in 1999. She got married in 2001 and gave birth to four more children, who benefit from her love, hard-gained life lessons and the compassion she has worked so hard to develop over the years.
“I am focused on being the best mother I can to my children. I strive to be a positive role model for them by leading by example,” she says.
Off drugs, she continued to struggle with alcohol when faced with challenges, but eventually quelled that dependency as well.
“I made a commitment to experience everything good and bad in life without selectively numbing myself to the experience,” she recalls.
Another significant setback threatened to slow her positive momentum when in 2005, Hernandez suffered heart failure during pregnancy. She bounced back quickly by drawing strength—as she always had—from those who have helped and protected her over the years, even during the darkest days of her life. That fall she began her college career at Los Angeles Southwest College, earning a 4.0 GPA her first semester. She finished most of her course work by 2009 and returned in 2012 to take one more class and earn her Associate Degree.
Hernandez began attending California State University, Dominguez Hills (CSUDH) in the fall of 2013. She is a Human Services major who is currently carrying a 3.8 GPA, and is on track to graduate in spring 2015.
Hernandez’s courage, perseverance and academic success helped her become CSUDH’s recipient of the prestigious 2014 CSU Trustees’ Award for Outstanding Achievement, and the $6,000 prize that comes with it. She plans to use the money to enroll in the College of Extended and International Education at CSUDH to earn a certificate in alcohol and drug counseling.
The Trustees’ Award is bestowed on students—one from each of the 23 CSU campuses—who demonstrate superior academic performance, personal accomplishments, community service, and financial need. On Sept. 9, the CSU Board of Trustees will honor her and the other recipients during a recognition ceremony held at the CSU Office of the Chancellor in Long Beach.
“I couldn’t believe I received the award. I really thought it was a long shot. It was very surreal,” she says. “The money will go far in helping me reach my goals and get my certificate.”
According to Monica Rosas-Baines, a clinical psychologist for Student Health and Psychological Services at CSUDH, “Pamela is eager to give back to the world which very often treated her so cruelly. She is always working hard at being a better version of herself. Pamela is a sedulous student and a conscientious parent to her children and somehow manages to juggle multiple responsibilities with little support.”
Hernandez also volunteers in the community, serving at the Lawndale Community Library, the Harbor Interfaith Shelter in San Pedro and in the PTA. She continues to better her academic prowess and the lives of her family and those around her.
“I would not be anywhere today if it were not for my education. I am a healthier person because I have learned to take better care of myself by eating right and exercising more,” she says. “I am also learning to recognize when I am having a bad day and that it’s okay to experience my negative feelings because they will go away. And I am very proud of the fact that I am learning to be healthier parent to my children.”
After graduation, she plans to use her education to help others, particularly those who are suffering the way she did years ago.
“I look forward to helping people who are struggling to help themselves. I plan on continuing to help out in my community by volunteering in my spare time,” says Hernandez. “I especially want to volunteer at local shelters to help the poor and homeless, and I want to help people to overcome their addictions so that they can enjoy healthier and happier lives.”