Student Commencement Speaker Advocates Lifelong Learning

Susana Hernandez brought good grades home from her Maryland high school, but school officials never nudged her toward college. Her immigrant parents wanted her to continue studying, but they didn’t know how the U.S. higher education system worked. Hernandez, a teenager at the time, was daunted by scholarship and financial aid applications.

It took Hernandez 15 years after her high school graduation to return to a classroom—at University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC)—pursuing a Bachelor of Science in business management, with a minor in small business entrepreneurship. At UMGC’s 2020 Virtual Winter Commencement, not only will Hernandez graduate cum laude and as a member of the Alpha Sigma Lambda Tau Chapter Honor Society, but she will give the student commencement speech. 

“I never thought I would be selected as the speaker,” said Hernandez, who was born in Peru, moved to Maryland at age 5 with her parents, and is the first person in her family to graduate from college. “I was really, really excited and got emotional when I received the news.”

The words flowed when she wrote the speech, and Hernandez was ready when it came time to videotape her thoughts for inclusion at the graduation ceremony, a virtual event owing to COVID-19.

Hernandez said her UMGC education included life lessons, among them how to communicate effectively and how to encourage others, something she applies to the children in a learning pod she assists while schools are teaching virtually. She said the journey to her degree also taught her compassion.

“It has taught me compassion as I see my classmates posting at three in the morning, remembering that in their introduction at the beginning of the semester they shared that they were a mother, a father, a caretaker, a spouse to an active-duty military member, some living overseas, some single parents,” Hernandez wrote in her speech. “Just as importantly, it has opened my mind to possibilities. And it has taught me that I never want to stop learning.”

Her advocacy of continuing education has resonated within her family. Her sister Jennifer is completing her first semester at UMGC, where she is studying early childhood education, with a focus on special education. Her sister Elizabeth is pursuing a degree in speech pathology at an online university. Hernandez’s brother, Christian, is currently considering enrolling at UMGC.

And Hernandez is investigating graduate degree programs in commercial real estate management, a specialty that caught her attention during a decade of work with a real estate firm.  She said it was “the realization that I would never grow in the real estate profession without a degree” that pushed her toward UMGC.

She began taking one course at a time while also working as a corporate trainer for a Washington, D.C., company. When that employer relocated to Richmond, Virginia, Hernandez used her severance pay to enroll at UMGC full time.

On the way to her degree, she especially enjoyed her business law and child psychology courses. However, it was a writing class that transformed her personal life, turning her into a climate warrior.

“We were to write a paper on any topic, and I chose environmental concerns—mitigating the use of paper in offices. When researching, I remember reading a line that every single piece of plastic ever created is still on the earth today because it has nowhere to go,” Hernandez said. “Now I’m trying to recycle and refurbish and limit my consumption. I don’t have any single-use products in my home.”

Laughing, Hernandez noted that her parents call in advance to ask her to turn up the heat in her house before they come to visit. She trailed family members at Thanksgiving, gathering up recyclables and items to compost. She also collects recyclables generated by the students in the learning pod she assists and drops them weekly at an REI store.

Hernandez and her boyfriend, her siblings and their partners, and her parents went into COVID-19 quarantine for two weeks prior to the UMGC commencement so they could celebrate the event together.

“For me, this road has been long, arduous, but so worthwhile,” Hernandez said, echoing the message in her commencement speech. “I tell anybody who will listen that school is an incredibly rewarding experience.”