El Centro Resource Center inspires alumna’s future career

Lorena Hernandez-Rivera (Cowell ’23)

Since the 7th grade, Lorena Hernandez-Rivera (Cowell ’23) dreamed of attending UC Santa Cruz. Growing up on the Monterey Bay, UCSC was the first college campus Hernandez-Rivera ever visited; that visit inspired her to become her family’s first college graduate. Now, months after her graduation, Hernandez-Rivera looks to help others in the way that UCSC helped her. 

Hernandez-Rivera’s journey demonstrates a versatility in learning during her time at UCSC, crossing many fields and disciplines on her academic journey. Although she began her time at UCSC unsure of what field to pursue, she quickly discovered not just one, but three different disciplines to dive into. She received a B.A. in Latin American studies with a minor in Education, Democracy, and Justice after five years at UCSC. 

“I fell in love with Latin American Studies,” she said. “The intro course was such a vibrant and enriching course. That’s where I met a lot of the people that ended up sticking with me for the next four years.” 

“I went for Latin American Studies with Sociology because I wanted to do more in the Latin American field. I wanted to be more challenged and see what else is out there, especially because it's a very interdisciplinary field. I did Latin American Studies with Sociology, and then when I picked up an education minor my junior year, I realized what I wanted to do for my career path.”

Hernandez-Rivera’s interest in higher education arose toward the end of her collegiate journey—yet quickly became an area of great aspiration. Afterwards, she began working with UCSC’s Educational Opportunity Program (EOP), whose mission is to provide both academic and personal support to low-income and first-generation college students. During her time at EOP, Hernandez-Rivera saw what could be her future career—one where she could help guide students like herself in an administrative role. 

“It was really inspiring to see that [working for programs like EOP] and helping students like me is a possibility. It was such a beautiful community to be a part of.”

Finding her community

After working with EOP, Hernandez-Rivera went on  to work at what she describes as a ‘dream job’ years in the making. After first learning of El Centro in her first year, she aspired to work with them. It was only in her  fifth year that she secured a position—and fulfilled her freshman year dream.

“Working at El Centro had been a dream job for me since my first year,” she said. I’d befriended a majority of Latino identifying friends in their third and second years, so they were always telling me about the different events that El Centro was hosting, and I would go with them. It was so beautiful to see the kind of community building and the feeling of a home that El Centro was able to create for students like me—and that was what drew me in immediately.”

Working on El Centro projects and events solidified Hernandez-Rivera’s goals to pursue education, and she quickly found a role model and mentor in El Centro Director Xiomara Lopez.  

“Xiomara Lopez studied higher education with counseling, so I felt like that was a sign that I was on the right track. Seeing how Xiomara is doing this amazing role makes me feel hopeful that that's in store for my future too.”

Just as El Centro shaped Hernandez-Rivera’s experience, she hopes the same for other UCSC students discovering the campus.

“When I was in Cowell, I didn’t really try different things on campus, and I felt stuck. For incoming UCSC students, break your bubble of comfort. When I would wake up in the morning, I would leave Cowell College, and go try out all the different study spaces or libraries, and then come back at the end of the day. There's so much more outside the dorms!”

Looking back at her time at UCSC, it’s clear how Hernandez-Rivera’s experiences prepared her for roles at EOP and El Centro. When finding her motivation, she need only look back on her own family’s background, and be reminded of the importance of El Centro to the student body. 

“What really kept me motivated for five years was thinking about my roots. I'm a daughter of immigrants, my parents immigrated from Mexico, and the highest formal education they had gotten was middle school with a G.E.D. in the US. Every year I kept pushing, I knew I was doing more for myself than they ever had.”