Astronaut José Hernández gives advice to students: ‘se vale soñar de grande’


Photo by Ysabella Gonzalez

Hernández said perseverance is key when trying to reach your goals.

Ysabella Gonzalez, Reporter

California Lutheran University brought in guest speaker astronaut José Hernández as part of the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math program funded by the Amgen foundation to highlight Latinos in STEM. 

Before the event, Hernández spoke to faculty during a lunch about how to help students. Hernández discussed a foundation he had started in 2009: the José M. Hernández Reaching for the Stars Foundation, a nonprofit designed to help students go to college. 

“Our mission is ‘to inspire youth to find passion in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Education, establish a family commitment to education, and develop a support network through community engagement,’” the website said.

According to Hernández, the foundation has had a lot of success in helping students move forward, and using his experience in working with students, he challenged Cal Lutheran to do more in terms of support. 

Hernández covered several issues, namely that Cal Lutheran needs to offer more support to underrepresented students besides TRIO and tutoring. He said the university needs to help kids attend college by having more affordable prices, especially as a private school, and offer to help high school students fill out their FAFSAs. Hernández also said that Cal Lutheran needs to do more for the students “living in their backyard.”

Hernández said he had gotten accepted as an undergraduate into Stanford, but due to the increased prices compared to other schools, he had to decline. 

Aside from programs and finances, Hernández also pointed out other struggles students may face, such as working jobs—not always to pay off tuition, but to help their families with bills. Hernández reminded faculty that students are trying their hardest, and the school should be putting them first. 

Following the conversation with faculty, Hernández talked to students in the Gilbert Sports and Fitness Center  on how he became an astronaut, highlighting perseverance despite numerous failures and holding onto aspirations. 

“I want you guys to believe that anything is possible, that it’s okay to dream big. In Español I always say, ‘Se vale soñar de grande.’ To dream big because I want to do the same thing my father did to me – he gave me the license to do this and then he gave me a recipe to convert my dream into reality,” Hernández said.

Hernández spoke about how he went on his own journey, from working in the fields up and down the California circuit as a migrant farmworker to becoming an astronaut for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. His dream started when he was 10 years old, watching Gene Cernan on the Apollo 17 mission as he walked on the moon. Hernández went on to major in engineering as an undergraduate and in signals and systems as a graduate student. His journey took him to the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory where he worked as an engineer while still trying to pursue his dream of being an astronaut.

“I started applying at NASA and was getting rejected left and right, and at one of those rejections, the consolation prize … was offering me a job as an engineer. So I had a real tough decision to make,” Hernández said. “If I left my present employer, which was the lab, I had fifteen years in there and I was in a good trajectory for management and doing very well, but I also knew that if I didn’t go to NASA, I probably won’t get selected.” 

Hernández said what was really holding him back were all of the setbacks he would face. At NASA he would lose all his seniority and would be taking a 15% pay cut.

“So it was a tough decision, but because I really wanted to be an astronaut, I rolled the dice and decided I’m gonna go to NASA. That’s how I ended up at NASA, working as an engineer first and then after four years working there, I finally get interviewed again and I got selected. So it was 11 rejections, 12 attempts,” Hernández said.

Hernández’s journey didn’t end there. Once selected, he went through several years worth of training to prepare him for the physical, mental and emotional strains to come. Finally, on Aug. 28, 2009, NASA sent him and his crew into space as part of the STS-128 mission on the space shuttle Discovery. It was a 14-day mission to the International Space Station where he would be the flight engineer. 

After sharing his own story and anecdotes, Hernández went on to offer students his own words of wisdom that he has carried his whole life. 

“My dad said if you wanna reach your goal to be an astronaut, follow this simple 5-ingredient recipe. He said: ‘Define your goal and purpose in life, recognize how far you are from your goal, draw yourself a road map so you know how to get there, prepare yourself according to the challenge—the goal you selected—and develop a work ethic second to none.’ I added the sixth ingredient, which … is perseverance, not giving up on yourselves.” Hernández said.

Hernández then looked over everyone present, offering his last words to students before ending his presentation.

“Too many times, human tendency is to give up after two or three failures and I try to instill in my audience that you can’t give up on yourself, you gotta believe in yourself, if you really want it, even if it takes you 12 times, like it did me. So I gotta leave it with that, that recipe works, and they should put it to work because I still use it today,” Hernández said.

Hernández tries to share his own story and advice as much as he can among students so that he can inspire following generations to go after their own dreams, especially underrepresented students.

“Using myself as an example, it’s great to use myself as a role model because people feel empowered when they see successful people that talk like them and look like them, and so I take that role very seriously and try to get out in the community and try to empower our kids to reach greater heights,” Hernández said. 

Hernández’s narrative was inspiring, not just for students at Cal Lutheran but for faculty as well. 

“Oh, it was a fantastic program listening to his very real story, I think any first-generation person exposed to college would relate to it, his perseverance story, and his family’s pride really – it just creates such a warm, strong feeling and creates inspiration at a time where it’s very easy to lose hope,” Vice President of University Advancement Regina Biddings-Muro said.

The event opened its doors to students and faculty from other schools. One of the attendees was the acting president of Oxnard College Oscar Cobian. 

“Definitely want[ed] to expose our students to this amazing message and giving this – such an empowering individual and showing our students – because we have a large number of farmworkers in our community and knowing that there’s hope, that there’s a pathway to become an engineer and an astronaut is very empowering for our students and community,” Cobian said. 

Hernández’s message resonated with many students. 

“This was probably the best thing that could happen to me at this point in my life. I just recently started at Oxnard College and to hear such an empowering message has motivated me to continue learning English and be successful at Oxnard College. So having hearing his message was really empowering for me,” Oxnard College first-year Francias Molina said. 

Hernández has several books published detailing his life story and will have a movie produced by Amazon called “Reaching for the Stars”.