Students

Road to citizenship leads to military, college and beyond

November 09, 2017 by Cindy O'Dell
Jorge Hernandez

Tech Sgt. Jorge Hernandez is working toward a Bachelor of Arts in Applied Studies at Brandman University. 

Jorge Hernandez loves America. He also loves the mother who brought him here at the age of 8 without the benefit of a visa.

Both of those loves are driving forces behind who Hernandez is, what he does and what he hopes to do in the future.

Hernandez is a technical sergeant in the U.S. Air Force; a husband and father; a loyal son and a Brandman student. He’s also a U.S. citizen, in part because of the efforts of his mother and step-father and, in part, because of his service in the military.

Born in Mexico

Hernandez family
Hernandez says his daughters' questions about college made him return to school.

His story begins in Tijuana – the roughest part of Tijuana – where his mother was trying to hold her family together after the death of her husband. Her solution was to bring her children to the U.S. where she remarried. It wasn’t until he was 11 or 12 that Hernandez began to understand how his status was different from his classmates. Visiting grandparents in Mexico was out of the question.

“When I turned 13 or 14, I realized my options were very, very limited. That sucks as a kid,” said Hernandez who remembers being warned to stay out of any trouble because he could be sent back to Mexico. “My parents told me, ‘You’ll never see us again. You can’t come back again.’”

Even more important, the U.S. was home. “I wanted to be a citizen so bad,” he remembered. When his parents were able to apply for amnesty and he was able to get a work permit thanks to their financial sacrifices and that allowed him to join the military. It was, he said, a way to pay back the country he has always thought of as home.

A 9-year journey

Jorge Hernandez
His deployments part of the Air Force's contingency response wing have taken him all over the world and to all kinds of climates.

For Hernandez, the road to citizenship took nine years. From the time he applied until he became a citizen took about 18 months. In the end, it was easier than he thought it would be.

Talking about becoming a citizen has taken longer. “I don’t usually open up to people,” said Hernandez. The years of being told not to tell anyone about his status continued until he was taking Assistant Professor Leigh Ann Wilson’s media ethics course.

“She asked a question (on the discussion boards) that I was hesitant to answer. She said everyone had to answer,” said Hernandez. When he messaged her that he hadn’t really said everything he wanted to say, she encouraged him to use his experiences to explain his point of view.

“Since he and I have many personal and professional parallels, we have conversed several times,” said Wilson, whose Ph.D. dissertation in history looked at the battle for equality for Mexican and Mexican-American students in San Antonio schools. “I found his motivation to succeed as well as his compassion for others to be profound.”

Master of moving supplies

Jorge Hernandez
Moving supplies can include everything from aircraft to humanitarian supplies

That shows up in his role with the Air Force. To hear Hernandez tell it, his job is to move supplies from one point to another. It’s not really that simple when the “supplies” include aircraft being moved by another part of the armed services or when you have to make sure hazardous materials don’t conflict.

“It’s a good job. There’s a lot of attention to detail,” said Hernandez, who is working toward his B.A. in applied studies at Brandman with an emphasis on supply chain systems.

It’s also a position that sends him around the world on three-day notice, including on humanitarian efforts such as a recent deployment to the Florida Keys to assist with hurricane recovery efforts.

“We’re in the contingency response wing. So, any time there are national disasters, war, we’re almost the first ones in to set up an airfield,” he said. That effort can also involve handing out supplies to people are hungry and thirsty. “We understand, they’re having it worse than we are.”

The military path to citizenship

  • Non-citizens have served in the U.S. military since the Revolutionary War and in every war since, according to the Department of Defense.
  • About 8,000 enlist each year.
  • Unlike when Hernandez first enlisted, a single day of active duty now allows enlistees to begin the process toward citizenship.
  •  Only citizens can become officers.

It also reminds him of the hardships and struggles his mother faced. “I realize now more than ever I need to be proud of my background. I know my parents could have done it the right way but at the time they couldn’t. They wanted a better life for me. You don’t really know unless you’ve been in those people’s shoes. My parents’ path is part of the conversation right now. I can’t ever tell them ‘you did it the wrong way.’”

That point was driven home when someone suggested he consider a career with Homeland Security, protecting the border and making use of his Spanish language skills. He’s not interested. “That would be a slap in the face to my parents.”

Valuing family

Welcome home
Hernandez greets his wife and one of his two daughters after a 215-day deployment.

It’s one of many ways that family is important to Hernandez. It was his own children questioning why he hadn’t gone to college that sent him back to Brandman, first to complete his associate degree and then to pursue his bachelor’s.

And it’s his classmates on discussion boards that have helped him think differently about what kind of career might await him after he’s done with the Air Force.

“I didn’t know what I wanted,” he said. A career in law enforcement or drug inspection seemed a likely route. “But in college, I realized that’s not what I wanted. I realized that I’m really good at my job and I really like it. Brandman did that. I appreciate the skills I’ve acquired in the military. Brandman pushed those skills farther. My goals changed – for the better.”

It has also changed his attitude toward school. “You get full of all these ideas. It’s not just ‘do this homework and submit it.’ I like the discussion boards and the feedback I get on my assignments.”

It makes him want to encourage others to continue both in school and toward citizenship and he offers the advice his parents gave him. “Stay out of trouble. Continue to better yourself and find a way to contribute to society.”

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