Pursuing a Passion For Helping Others
By Tim Meehan
One of the missions of Cal State San Marcos’ College of Education, Health and Human Services is to prepare students for highly skilled and ethical health care careers through collaborative engagement with community and regional partners.
Melissa Hernandez has taken that vision to heart.
Thanks to her heavy activity on campus – including a 3.8 cumulative GPA – and in the community, Hernandez has been named the 2022 dean’s outstanding graduate for CEHHS.
“When you get nominated for something, you don't really expect to get it,” said Hernandez of her honor. “As the first in my family to go to college and get a bachelor's degree, it's kind of surprising but rewarding. I guess I'm not used to being recognized for my effort, but this is an opportunity to do so. It’s made me feel really appreciative of everything and everyone involved.”
When Hernandez arrived on the CSUSM campus four years ago from nearby San Pasqual High School, she – in her own words – didn’t know what she was doing. As a first-generation college student, she had nobody in her immediate circle to show her the ropes.
But when this stage in life challenged her, she met it head on.
Hernandez tapped her passion to help others while she immediately connected with as many professors as she could. She knew her future was in her hands.
“I went in not knowing even how to register for classes or how to navigate the whole college system,” said Hernandez, a human development major. “I didn't expect to receive this award or even graduate. It was difficult with a lot of figuring it out on my own. But with the people around me and the services provided by Cal State San Marcos, it was important for me to be a part of it all. I started to feel like everyone had the same opportunity here.
“Sometimes you go to schools or you hear of other schools that don't have the same thing that we have. And I think it's important for everyone to be included.”
Hernandez’s passion for helping others has manifested into a pair of opportunities this school year as she performed a service-learning project at an elementary school and also had an internship virtually while working full time.
She currently works at Vista Community Clinic as a community health specialist. She engages in the food distribution program at the clinic, visiting two cities weekly to provide food for people living in poverty. She also works for the medical mobile unit of the clinic, which provides health services at no cost, including COVID-19 testing and vaccine distribution.
She set up some of her fellow CSUSM classmates for a focus group organized by the VCC for youth perspectives regarding mental health resources in San Diego County.
“I've learned so much more about different ways to give back to the community and how to show up for your community,” Hernandez said of her job at VCC. “And I think that has reflected to a lot of my work at school. Working full time for that job has been insightful because at the same time what I'm learning in class, I'm practicing at my job.”
On campus, Hernandez has demonstrated her leadership through campus activities and by serving her fellow students. She has been serving the CEHHS Committee on Inclusion, Diversity and Equity as a student representative since the fall.
In that role, she shares her thoughts and concerns from students’ perspectives to improve the campus climate. She is also an active member in the Society of Pre-Health, a CSUSM student organization whose mission is to have students become involved with health-related issues and activities and facilitate students’ career exploration in health care.
Upon graduation this month, she will take a year off to pursue a career in public health. She’ll spend that year taking prerequisites to be ready to apply for a physician’s assistant program with a master’s degree in public health.
She also wants to get certified in phlebotomy to get more hands-on experience in the medical field while also keeping her job at the clinic.
It may take a few years for her to reach her goal of becoming a PA, but Hernandez is already knee deep into making a positive impact in her community.
“In the health care system here in America, there's so many social determinants of health that need to be addressed,” Hernandez said. “Working for the clinic and working as an outreach worker in the community, I've seen the disparities that communities face with health issues and health services and what's available to them. So I think that I'll take that with me, and I'm going to keep expanding my education to my practice as a PA and my work that I do in the future.”
Eric Breier, Public Affairs Specialist
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