Robert Hernandez, Director of TMCC’s Veterans Upward Bound (VUB) Program, knows firsthand the challenges that first-generation college students face. A native Nevadan, Hernandez grew up in Montello, a small town in the eastern part of the state. As a first-generation college student and the youngest of five children, Hernandez’s siblings were key in enabling him to succeed in higher education. “My sister showed me how to fill out the application for financial aid and grants, for example. So, I know how hard it can be for a first-generation person to enroll in college, especially when there are so many barriers to overcome,” he said.
He came to Reno to go to the University of Nevada, Reno where he majored in Human Services because he found ample reward in a discipline and a career path that would enable him to help others. “I was a TRIO student as well,” he explained, so his knowledge of TRIO-funded programs like Upward Bound (with which he would later work as a Counselor at UNR), and later as Director of TMCC’s Veterans Upward Bound Program, gave him an appreciation for the support that students from all walks of life need in order to succeed.
“My experiences in TRIO programs like Upward Bound is what really brought me to TMCC,” he said. “I wanted to truly help students who faced considerable barriers to nonetheless persist, and succeed.”
Hernandez credits his staff as the primary reason for the ability of the VUB program to reach and assist so many veterans for well over two decades, providing them with non-credit support classes, connecting them to college and community resources, and providing supportive transitional services once these veterans were ready and able to enroll in college classes at TMCC. “And that is so key, to hire smart people who have the right skill sets for what you want to do. When I first started, I met with my new staff and I told them...it’s going to be us that determines the destiny of this program,” he said.
As a new Director, Hernandez worked to instill a positive, collaborative environment for his team that would empower each member to work toward the common goal of helping veterans pursue higher education. The pep talk and approach has obviously worked: TMCC’s VUB program has been cited as a Best Practice since its early days and continues to offer these services despite the ongoing pandemic.
Hernandez’s optimism and go-to spirit come from his insight that, while barriers certainly exist, many of them exist mostly within our minds. This insight has not only led him to lead a very successful program at TMCC, but to share his wisdom in workshops, trainings and in his recently published book.
An Author and Advocate
In 2021, Hernandez’s book Awaken and Come Alive: The Power of Self-Awareness Featuring the 5 Master Keys for Life Success was published by Outskirts Press. Within its pages, Hernandez shares his philosophy on life: that positive change comes from fostering a meaningful and positive relationship with yourself, your thoughts and actions.
Many of the book’s passages are informed by Hernandez’s work with the veterans who come to the VUB office, looking for support in making positive changes in their lives through higher education. “Some of the veterans I work with have combat experience, and I’m always amazed that the biggest fear for some of these field-tested fighters is the fear of stepping into the classroom,” he said.
While the targeted services, programs, and referrals can support veterans who are undergoing the transition from military service to student, Hernandez insists that no two individuals are alike, and works with his staff to individualize how each can be supported by the VUB program. “One of the hallmarks of the program’s success is to treat each veteran as an individual and acknowledge their personal experiences as their own. Although it’s easy to generalize and categorize, everyone’s experience is different. Rather than trying to fit them into a mold, we help shape new perspectives for their success.”
One way Hernandez serves veterans is by building on a lesson they learned during their service in the military: the necessity of being prepared. For example, if a veteran’s assessment reveals a weakness in math, VUB offers non-credit classes in the subject designed to provide knowledge and skills that the veteran will need to be proficient in college-level math. VUB also collaborates with the TMCC Veterans Resource Center (VRC) to provide their students with a smooth transition into college.
In many ways, Hernandez’s book functions in much the same manner, calling on readers to hone their self-awareness using five master keys that can lead to life success, and encourages them not to fear change and transition, but to recognize: “We must change to live and live to change [and] the self that takes you in is not the self that will get you out.” The book explains these by recognizing the “invisible forces'' that include aspects of ourselves like motivation, attitude, and emotions, and how those, too, play into our success.
In addition to the publication of his book, Hernandez shares his knowledge of working with veteran, first-generation, and low-income students with other higher education professionals by presenting at national seminars, workshops, and conferences. In fact, in Fall 2021, he presented at a conference on the subject of grant writing strategies for organizations interested in obtaining a VUB grant.
“I’m happy to do that because when I first started there was very little help, and I was handed a 100-page grant and told to ‘just do it.’ So, the first thing I did was that I attended a training in Atlanta where I met other VUB directors and they were able to answer my questions,” said Hernandez. “As a result, it started to clear up in my mind how we’re going to evolve this grant.”
These days, Hernandez teaches a workshop on how VUB and other non-profit administrators can take a grant and “put it to work.” After all, that’s what he enjoys the most: showing others how to build a successful VUB program as he has done over the past twenty years at TMCC.
Empowering Others at TMCC
Although many things have changed since Hernandez began working as the VUB Director at TMCC, he cites the Student Services and Diversity Division as an important evolution and evidence that TMCC is focused on student success. Over the years, he has also noted that the average age of the student-veterans he serves has dropped from mid-40s to their early-30s. Yet, the core of what his work entails—helping first-generation and low-income veterans reach their full potential—remains unchanged.
“We give them a hand up, not a handout,” he said. “This program is about empowering. We talk to them, we train them with the skills and information needed for college success. And generally, the most wonderful thing about this program is to see that transition from fear to trust.” And that, he said, is a hallmark of TMCC’s approach to all students.
“I love this place because it has given me the opportunity to be creative and to operate this program according to the guidelines. And, TMCC is such a personal institution. Students get personalized attention, much more than anywhere else. We work together to make sure students succeed,” he said.
For more information about TMCC’s Veterans Upward Bound Program, contact them at 775-829-9007.