While many seniors have halted their college plans in response to COVID-19, one charter public high school student found inspiration from the crisis.
Joseph Hernandez, a senior at Summit Shasta, set aside his interest in computer science and decided to pursue a degree in government after witnessing how the pandemic was handled in the United States.
Summit Shasta is a high school in Daly City, Ca. and part of the Summit Public Schools charter school network. Shasta prepares a diverse student population for success in college through project-based learning by collaborating on real-world challenges.
The school's success is reflected in students like Joseph.
He's been accepted to Harvard with a full-ride scholarship, in a year with the lowest acceptance rate on record, Hernandez’s goal is to become an elected official.
But politics was not his first love.
A self-proclaimed “typical computer science guy,” Joseph grew up with a passion for math and fell in love with a robotics class he took in middle school.
He dreamed of finding a way to help people using computer science.
When he arrived at Summit Shasta, he was excited to be a self-directed learner, a unique aspect of the Summit model, in order to advance his interest in math at his own accelerated pace.
What seemed like a clear path for Hernandez started to shift when a representative from The School for Ethics and Global Leadership (SEGL) presented at Summit Shasta.
Hernandez was excited to learn about another opportunity to take his education into his own hands, this time through a semester abroad in South Africa.
“I went for it, I was excited to explore and had never left the U.S. before. I had barely been out of the state,” Hernandez said.
Hernandez was accepted to the program and headed to Johannesburg during the spring of his junior year.
Just as Hernandez dove into government and philosophy classes in SEGL, the COVID-19 pandemic swept the globe.
“My semester there actually got cut off and we had to go home early ... But if [the U.S.] had actually handled [the pandemic] better from the jump it would not have been this bad,” Hernandez said. “For a long time I had the perspective that I was passionate about politics but that I could just vote and that would be enough,” he said.
“As it started affecting my life more I thought, I can’t just watch, I need to fix these things myself. My path changed, but either way, my goal has always been to help people with my career. I realized then that personally, government was a better path for me to make an impact.”
Hernandez made a major pivot just as college application season began.
His commitment to making positive change fueled his drive to get into Harvard early action to study government, and to one day become an elected official.
“The whole thing surprises me; I didn’t expect to end up here. Harvard wasn’t even on my radar because I just thought that’s a really, really good school, I’m not going to wind up there,” Hernandez said.
When he got his acceptance email, he recalled his family’s reaction.
“My dad screamed loud enough that I think the whole apartment building heard.”
Hernandez expressed gratitude towards the Shasta community as well as an intention to pay it forward.
One of the hallmarks of Shasta is its character education program which encourages students to be thoughtful, contributing members of society.
Completing the character education program is Shasta's mentorship initiative which ensures all students are partnered with mentor throughout their high school experience.
Joseph credits his mentor, Gene Lee, for helping him further his education -- encouraging him to concurrently enroll in Skyline Community College to earn college credits while attending high school.
“I got this far because of the help I received along the way and I want to make sure other people have that same support.”
Next year, he plans to volunteer his time to help seniors with their college applications.
“I want to make sure I leave an impact at Summit.”
His advice for future seniors: “Take every opportunity that comes to you and give it your all.”
To learn more about Summit Shasta and programs offered at this charter public school, visit its website.
This story was written by Summit Public Schools staff and first appeared in its blog.
Photo of Joseph Hernandez is courtesy of Karina Patel/San Mateo Daily Journal.