Growing up in El Salvador, José Hernandez wanted to be either a teacher or a pro soccer player. Today, he teaches Spanish to Harrisonburg High School students.
Hernandez moved to the U.S. from El Salvador in 2013. He originally came to Winchester to be with family, but soon moved to New York City, where he spent a month learning English. It was there when he was about 16 or 17 that several young men with whom he was playing pick-up games of soccer suggested he go to high school.
After graduating from high school in New York, Hernandez returned to Winchester in 2015. He decided to enroll at Laurel Ridge.
“The college did a great job helping me get enrolled, and offering me advice about financial aid, orientation, and academic and language classes,” he said. “Even though I had graduated from high school, my English wasn’t advanced enough to be in college classes.”
After spending nearly a year in ESL classes, Hernandez was ready to begin taking his regular college classes.
“I had the opportunity to be part of the Student Ambassadors, and that was a really good learning experience for me because I got to be open and have an open mind to get to know more things about how the college works and how to relate and have relationships with other people,” he said. “That really helped me to grow as a student and as a person.”
Hernandez also had a work-study job in the advising department.
“The moment that I got involved at Laurel Ridge, it changed my life,” he said. “My English classes were my favorite because they were the ones that challenged me the most.”
Among his favorite professors were English Professor Brent Kendrick and former English Professor Miriam Moore.
“Dr. Kendrick was one of the nicest and kindest professors,” Hernandez said. “Everyone was always excited to be in his class.”
After earning his associate degree in liberal arts in 2019, Hernandez transferred to James Madison University where he was part of the Centennial Scholars program, which offers financial and academic support to students from under-represented backgrounds. Hernandez also received the Stephen E. and Karen S. Wisecarver Endowed Scholarship from the Laurel Ridge Foundation. Established by two retired Laurel Ridge employees, the scholarship is designed to support a recent Laurel Ridge graduate, and preference is given to those pursuing a career in education.
Even at JMU, Hernandez could still turn to Laurel Ridge for help. Career coach and advisor Natasha Price tutored him last year as he prepared for state testing in English literacy.
“I thoroughly enjoyed working with him because his work ethic is amazing,” Price said.
In December 2021, Hernandez graduated from JMU with his bachelor’s degree in Spanish and a license to teach Spanish to students in grades 6-12. He started teaching Spanish at Harrisonburg High School in January.
“It’s very nice because I love teaching,” Hernandez said. “That’s my passion. I’m very proud to go every day and just see the smile and the curiosity of my students. When I was in El Salvador, I had either wanted to be a teacher or a professional soccer player.”
Hernandez will become a student once again this fall when he begins his master’s degree in foreign languages, cultures and literatures with a concentration in Hispanic studies at Virginia Tech. While that means he won’t be teaching at Harrisonburg High School after this spring, he has accepted a graduate teaching assistantship at Virginia Tech.
“No matter where you are from, no matter what language you speak, I think that here in the United States, as well as the college and the university, if there’s resilience and persistence from the students, there’s also going to be a dream for them,” Hernandez said. “I think every student needs to know that there’s always going to be a dream for them at Laurel Ridge. They just need to look for those doors and not give up.”
Laurel Ridge Community College was known as Lord Fairfax Community College until June 2022. For consistency purposes, the college will be referenced as Laurel Ridge going forward.