Diana Hernandez: From Hartnell College to UC Santa Cruz

Diana Hernandez with her daughter

Diana Hernandez, a California native from Seaside, began her academic journey as a new parent in the middle of the pandemic in 2020. Starting at Hartnell College, Diana juggled her studies with the responsibilities of caring for her six-month-old daughter. She felt embraced and supported by the Hartnell community, and after receiving her associate’s degree, was encouraged to transfer to UC Santa Cruz to pursue a bachelor’s degree in literature and psychology.

Upon transferring to UC Santa Cruz, Diana continued to excel academically and became actively engaged in research in the Migration, Identity, and Education Lab (MIEL). Inspired by her coursework in Latin American and Latino Studies, she made the decision to add it as a third major.

Diana’s commitment to social justice and education led her to become involved in various campus organizations at UC Santa Cruz, including the Student Parent Organization, where she advocates for greater support for student parents in higher education.

Looking ahead, Diana plans to pursue a master’s degree after graduating from UC Santa Cruz in June 2025.

We spoke with Diana about her experiences transferring from Hartnell College to UC Santa Cruz and balancing school with being a parent.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Where did your academic journey begin, and what inspired you to start?

My daughter was six-months-old when I started at Hartnell College. Becoming a parent forced me to really think about the future and what I wanted to do, and what I wanted the future to look like. I remember laying in bed one night and thinking, “What am I going to do next?” The next day I started applying to Hartnell, and it went really well.

My Hartnell academic counselor was amazing, and we worked together to figure out what my interests were. I was always drawn to being an educator so I started in the literature program and eventually added in psychology as well.

Starting school at the beginning of the pandemic was helpful because everything was online, so I was able to stay with my daughter. It was a pretty wild time. I was going through a lot of change, becoming a parent and transitioning out of my work in hospitality as a server. My life shifted a lot pretty quickly, but I am really grateful for the change and for all of the learning that came with becoming a mom and going to school.

Did you always plan to transfer to a four-year college?

I knew from the beginning that I wanted to transfer to UC Santa Cruz for my bachelor’s degree. UC Santa Cruz was my top choice for so many reasons. I did apply to other schools and I got accepted to all of the schools I applied to. But the fact that UC Santa Cruz had programs such as childcare to support students with families made it my number one choice because I really need that support system.

How do you think your experience at Hartnell prepared you for your transition to UC Santa Cruz?

My experience at Hartnell prepared me in a really significant way. I had professors at Hartnell who took time between their lessons to talk to their students about graduate school. I had no idea what graduate school was before they brought it up. That prepared me to begin thinking about my academic timeline in a much broader way. It opened my mind to the various opportunities and different career pathways and education pathways that I wasn't aware of before.

One thing that they expressed was, if you get research experience as an undergraduate, you can go straight into a graduate program. If more community colleges began talking about graduate school with their students, that could help prepare them the same way and open their minds to more opportunities. It helped me engage with the information that I'm receiving in a different way because now I know that this information, I'm learning how far it can take me, and that really shaped my educational experience.

How was your transition to UC Santa Cruz from Hartnell?

I was privileged to have my tuition covered by financial aid and scholarships at UC Santa Cruz, including the Karl S. Pister Scholarship, which is specifically dedicated to supporting transfer students. That took a huge load off my shoulders as far as the transition went.

UC Santa Cruz also has STARS, the Student Transfer and Re-entry Services Department, which organized a summer introduction for my transfer student cohort before we started. They were all so kind and welcoming, introducing us to various resources, like a program for student parents offering Amazon or Safeway gift cards. Learning about these niche resources for student parents helped so much. They also had graduate students come in and talk to us about research as an undergraduate during that summer session. All of those connections have been so important for me.

And last quarter, I joined the student parent organization. That has also really shaped my experience here because there are struggles that student parents face that are not understood by everyone. The leaders and board members of the Student Parent Organization want to bring tangible change so that other student parents will be able to access more resources. They are a source of inspiration. I'm fortunate to have all of these people in my life. I definitely wouldn’t have the experience that I'm having at UCSC without them.

What led you to pursue a literature major and a psychology major? And what inspired your decision to major in Latin American and Latino Studies as well?

I've always loved just reading. It's always been something I've enjoyed, so the decision to major in literature was really easy. I didn't really have to think about that one. I knew it would be a good career pathway. I chose psychology because I can see the benefit of counseling psychology in my own community, as well as to lots of other communities that don't necessarily have access to mental health resources.

At UCSC, in the undergraduate psychology program, we have to take one course outside our major. I chose a Latin American and Latino Studies class. That class gave me a lot of language to describe my own experiences. I became really interested in it and decided at first to minor in it, and now I have it as a major. It was helpful to learn the theories and the history of Latin America because it ties into my personal experiences and also so many global issues.

What has it been like going to school as a parent?

Being a parent has really forced me to think about my priorities and really funnel my energy and my time into those things. When I'm in class, I'm excited to learn because I know everything that it has taken for me to be there and that my time is so limited. I've had to really choose carefully about where I spend my time and to make sure that what I'm learning is valuable to me. So when I'm in class, everything I'm learning feels so meaningful and valuable to me. I’m more present.

Being a student parent has also brought me to this community of other student parents. My daughter has these amazing friends and I get to know all of the families around me. There's so much solidarity in this community because it is hard. I'm really grateful for this experience. I'm honestly happy that I started college as a student parent because I feel like I've had a rich experience with the connections I've made, and I know that they're going to last a lifetime. I feel like I have a wealth of community and that's the most important thing to me.

What are some of the biggest challenges you faced and had to overcome?

I would say the biggest difficulty I've faced is all related to financial need. Being a single parent and attending school full-time presents the constant question of 'where will I find time to earn an income?' It's an ongoing source of stress. I think that there is so much room for improvement on a state and federal level as far as support goes for student parents.

As a freelance massage therapist, I have the privilege of setting my own schedule, yet even with this flexibility, it’s really difficult. I work whenever possible, but my available working hours are limited because I lack childcare after 5 o'clock. I'm still navigating this situation and hoping to help improve things, particularly for other student parents in the future through the Student Parent Organization.

Is there anything you would say to other student parents that are just beginning their academic journey or have gone through similar experiences?

I'd suggest reaching out to other student parents, getting to know them, and making time to connect with them. Doing so really relieved a burden for me, personally, because you realize you're not the only one facing these challenges. Knowing you're not alone is incredibly helpful in navigating university life. Making connections and making friends with other student parents is really helpful.

Also, if you're struggling in a course as a student parent, don’t hesitate to ask for an extension. Even more importantly, be open with your professor about what you're going through. I didn't seek extensions until this year, struggling alone instead of seeking help. However, most, if not all, of the professors I've had have been flexible, understanding, and kind. There's no shame in asking for help.

As you look to the future, what are you most excited about?

I'm really excited about finding a way to use everything I'm learning and share it with the community around me. After I graduate, I plan to pursue either a doctorate or a master’s degree. I'm excited to see how I can use the knowledge I've gained and as a future educator or psychologist help others comprehend, or further comprehend, why society is the way it is.