San Marcos,
08:33 AM

Turning Students into STARs

By David Ogul

Ivan Hernandez never thought of himself as Ph.D. material. At least not until the Cal State San Marcos junior was introduced to the CSUSM MARC U*STAR program that encourages and supports qualified minority students majoring in the sciences into pursuing a doctoral degree.

MARC U*STAR is an acronym for Maximizing Access to Research Careers – Undergraduate Student Training for Academic Research, and it has had a profound impact on Hernandez’s educational goals.

“I never thought a Ph.D. was possible for me,” Hernandez said. “When I started doing undergraduate research I wasn’t confident. I didn’t know what I wanted to do and I didn’t identify as a scientist. The MARC program is like a family of people with the same interest, mindset and goals. They mentor you to write and present, encourage you to travel to conferences, and coach you on how to be a better candidate for grad school. Now I’m seeing my peers get accepted into graduate programs all over the country and I can see that for me in my future, too.”

As well he should. Hernandez recently captured a first-place award at the California State University Statewide Research Competition for his project, “The Influence of Minority Training Programs on Individuals’ Social Mobility Mindset.”

In short, CSUSM is helping Hernandez live the American Dream. And he is making an impression along the way. Dr. Wesley Schultz, with whom Hernandez has been doing research, said Hernandez quickly adapted to working in his lab in the spring of 2015.

“As he entered his second year in the lab, Ivan began to mentor new students joining the team,” Schultz said. “At the same time, his responsibilities continued to grow, and he was able to develop his own hypothesis and collect new data. This served as the basis for a paper that he submitted to the CSU statewide research competition, where he eventually won first place.”

Now he is aiming to be accepted into a Ph.D. program in psychology. Ultimately, he would like to become a college professor. Perhaps at Cal State San Marcos.

“Ivan fully utilizes every opportunity that comes his way,” said Dr. Anna Woodcock, a research faculty member at CSUSM. “I would clone him if I could. He has a really good analytical mind and he is very dedicated to his work.”

Hernandez, 21, was raised in Lake Elsinore and fared well enough in his studies, but never stood out academically.

“School was never really a priority when I was growing up,” he said. “I did what I had to do, so I was just an average student.”

When his father, a long-distance truck driver, was critically injured in a devastating accident near Reno, Nevada, school became even less of a priority. With his father unable to work – “It was really a miracle he survived” – Hernandez began working nearly full-time at a Kentucky Fried Chicken in nearby Murrieta. “I was working a lot of hours when I was in high school, so my focus wasn’t on my studies.”

Cal State San Marcos was the last thing on his mind.

“College was something people always talked about, but it wasn’t something I saw in my future,” he said.

A teacher or two at Lakeside High School in Lake Elsinore, however, refused to let Hernandez give up. They pushed him to try harder in school and apply to CSUSM. They pointed out that Cal State San Marcos was close to home. It was affordable. He could keep his job. Until recently, in fact, Ivan was shuttling between his home in Lake Elsinore, school in San Marcos, and his job in Murrieta.

“Cal State San Marcos changed my life,” he said. “First of all, you get here and it’s just a beautiful place to be. Then you have these professors who are looking out for you and really, truly want to help you. Then you have so many different clubs and organizations to get you involved, you feel like you’re part of something bigger, part of a community.”

Still, he had not settled on a major and was unsure what field he wanted to pursue. Until an introductory psychology course that was part of his general education requirements. He had found his calling.

“In the past, I would be reading things for class only because I had to read things for class. With psychology, I was reading things for class because I wanted to. I was fascinated by the subject matter.”

By his junior year, he was a full-fledged participant in the MARC U*STAR program.

MARC U*STAR is aimed at CSUSM students committed to pursuing a Ph.D. in a biomedical research field. Participants must be a U.S. citizen or a permanent resident and should be from underrepresented communities. Students work in a research laboratory, attend scientific conferences, and participate in graduate school prep programs and biomedical seminars while earning annual stipends of $12,336.

“While Ivan is certainly a STAR, these types of research opportunities are available for students from across the campus,” Schultz said. “They take hard work, commitment, and oftentimes long hours, but these undergraduate research experiences can be transformative – as they were for Ivan. CSUSM has had a long-standing commitment to providing research experiences for our students, and Ivan’s story attests to the impact that these opportunities can have on our students."