PSP’s Program guru steps into new role
There is next to no one more intimately familiar with the inner workings of Partnership Scholars Program than newly promoted Program & Operations Manager, Maria Hernandez. “Maria is deeply familiar with the students we serve and has dedicated herself to doing everything she can to help them succeed,” says Executive Director Lisa Ruben. “In this new role, Maria will be taking on a greater management role to make our student events, like the college tours and college retreat, as fun and informative as possible. She’ll also be helping us develop new programs that will help us better engage the families of our scholars.”
Going back to 1999, only three years after the program started, Maria began her journey with PSP as an inductee at Lennox Middle School. “I remember being terrified, because it was my first interview,” recalls Maria. But her fear quickly turned to sheer excitement when she was notified that she had made it into the program and would be benefitting from six years of mentorship, through her graduation from Animo Leadership Charter High School in 2005. “I was the happiest 7th grader in the world,” says Maria. “I told everybody…everyone who knew me heard about it.”
Upon graduation from Animo, Maria was awarded the Gates Millennium Scholarship, granting her full tuition for her undergraduate studies at UCLA where she ultimately majored in Chicano Studies & Education Studies. While in college, she stayed in touch with her mentor, Christine Franco, who helped Maria through some tough times, especially in the beginning. “I struggled my first year in college,” says Maria. “I wanted to be a doctor,” says Maria, but she didn’t do as well as she expected to. “I got a ‘C’ for the first time,” says Maria, which was a real wake-up call to her. “I considered dropping out,” remembers Maria, but her mentor supported her and made sure she stuck with it.
Maria stayed connected with PSP, coming back to Lennox Middle School for induction ceremonies from time to time. Eventually, Meg Sanchez, former Lennox vice principal and long-time volunteer for the organization, was looking for a part-time office assistant and Maria came on to the PSP staff in 2007. At that time, Maria also became a PSP mentor, taking on several scholars in the program who had lost their mentors. “That was a really great experience for me,” she says. “I was able to apply what I had learned as a scholar and helped [my scholars] develop those skills.”
Maria came on to work for PSP full time when she graduated from UCLA in 2011. In 2014, when PSP hired Lisa Ruben as the Executive Director, Maria’s role shifted from administrative to more program-focused work as she became more involved with parents and students. Having grown up in the community, benefited from the program and been a mentor herself, Maria says she has no difficulty relating to the students and families that she works with. “It’s easy to talk to someone and explain the program, what they’re in for, and what the program will bring them,” says Maria. “Because I’ve experienced it myself.”
After nearly 18 years of involvement with PSP, Maria has certainly seen the program change and evolve. “Our students now get a more consistent experience,” she says, pointing to an increase in structure and protocol implemented in the last few years. Programmatically, she feels students are getting significantly more support now in terms of college preparation, with the addition of organized events like the College Access Retreat and college trips out-of-state. “It’s great to see [PSP] expanding and also great for the students to get to know each other from the other program sites,” says Maria. “They’re creating a network and support system.” That’s new for the program and not something she benefited from herself as a scholar.
Maria’s new roll as the Program & Operations Manager means she will be rolling up her sleeves and taking the lead on planning events such as inductions, graduations, the college access retreat, and college visits. Looking at the immediate future, Maria’s hope is to be able to expand PSP’s work around parent engagement. “I want to be able to help our parents be more involved in the college application process,” says Maria. “Our parents have not been through the process themselves since they haven’t been to college, so we want to help them be able to support their children by getting educated about the process.”