REALITY CHANGERS transforms lives by providing youth from disadvantaged backgrounds with the academic support, financial assistance, and leadership training to become college graduates.

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Reality Changers helps youth throughout Southern California achieve the dream of higher education. Our experienced staff and volunteers utilize the “Tightrope Theory” approach to ensure students keep their focus on college. But that’s only half of the story; the other half involves our students’ grit, tenacity, and determination. Without these characteristics, even the strongest institutional backing will not guarantee success.

The Monthly Alumni Spotlight chronicles the obstacles and challenges Reality Changers students face on their journey to a better life – all from a first-hand point of view.

Fast Facts:
Jessie Hernandez-Reyes
Reality Changers, Class of 2015
University of California Los Angeles, Class of 2019
Major: Chicano Studies, Political Science; Minor: Education Studies

What was the biggest challenge you faced when transitioning from high school classes to college courses?

Within the first couple of days I was on campus during my first year, my biggest challenge was dealing with “survivor guilt”, or the guilt that many first generation college students face due to being able to experience opportunities not available to their families back home. As soon as I stepped on campus, I realized how privileged I was to be in an air-conditioned room, with what seemed to be unlimited meals and five-star dining, and the ability to be in my new city of Los Angeles, opportunities I had never fully experienced in my life until this point. I felt guilty that my only responsibility was to be on campus, studying, and getting good grades while knowing my parents were breaking their backs to provide for me and my siblings and I at school. I did not feel deserving of this opportunity; I felt like I should be at home taking care of my family, and I was constantly dealing with “imposter syndrome”, or the doubt of not being “good enough” to be on my college campus to succeed. Luckily however, I was able to work through my survivor guilt and imposter syndrome through my participation in UCLA’s Academic Advancement Program, the Freshman Summer Program (FSP), which was highly recommended to me by an RC alumni.

Through my Peer Counselor in the program who I was able to speak about openly with about my survivor guilt and imposter syndrome, I was reassured that I had to take advantage of the opportunity to be on this campus, and successfully work my way through to provide the opportunities I was feeling guilty for to my family in the future. Moreover, through this program, I was able to strengthen academic abilities that I soon realized I lacked as soon as I came on campus. I credit a lot of my academic improvement to this program, and HIGHLY recommend all incoming freshman/first year transfer students to participate in it as well.

What was your favorite part about participating in Reality Changers?

My favorite part about participating in Reality Changers was having the opportunity to hear Salina and G’s constant emphasizing of the importance of life skills in college, which was always discussed during College Apps Academy. Although I was still a high schooler who didn’t know exactly what college would bring or look like, I learned a lot about the college environment before even getting there. They were always open to being real and honest about their experiences, and always allowed us to ask questions too. They constantly emphasized our grand ability to graduate from college, to understand that although at times in college you were going to feel as though you didn’t belong there, you did.

What did you learn at Reality Changers that has been most helpful to you either in college or your career?

At the start of my time in Reality Changers, I was very shy and not very social, but through Reality Changers I learned to be outgoing and not be afraid of approaching other people. We were taught to be amiable and open through the program, whether that was through the openness of the staff or other students themselves; they always emphasized the importance of interactions, saying “you never know where an interaction may lead you.” As first generation college students, we are often not the first students in a room to interact with others, to ask questions; we’re taught to “suck it up” and “do it on our own”, without help from others. However, the truth is, we need to be the first to interact with others around us, to ask questions and learn about resources available for us, as we are the first to establish many new experiences in our families including college itself. It is our responsibility to interact and network with others and bring those resources to us, and our peers. Through Reality Changers, I learned to ask for help, and continue knocking on doors until you find the resources you need; a skill that has been crucial to both my academic and professional success in my college career.

What advice would you give current seniors at Reality Changers about college that you wish you had know before stepping on campus?

Know your resources, and if you don’t know where to start, don’t be afraid to ask professors or other upperclassmen/students on campus about what resources they recommend on campus! A good place to start looking is your school’s Educational Opportunity Program!

Navigating college in itself in another process, and we need all the tools to do so, so don’t be shy in asking for help! Remember, you belong there, and you matter.

Involvement outside of work or school: 

This summer I interned with the UCSD BLUM Center’s Cross Border Initiative. I learned a lot about our bi-national region and our need to adapt to our natural geography in San Diego; as well as the dire need to work together as a binational region to further basic resources in Tijuana, Mexico, of which many of the communities directly on the other side of the border lack. Many communities which are about 45 minutes away from us on the other side lack basic access to resources such as clean water, sewage services, etc, a problem that should not be existent within such short reach of San Diego, which is significantly wealthier and abundant in such resources.

The Initiative works on various projects, including that of building sustainable community gardens, transportation, and education campaigns in the community of Tijuana, specifically within that of Divina Providencia, Baja California. This summer, I was fortunate enough to be able to work within this community on their education campaign in helping folks from this community learn how the abundant trash situation around their homes is negatively impacting their health, in order to take proactive action around this issue. Learning and furthering my knowledges on these issues allowed me to gain a greater perspective on U.S.-México relations, and allowed me to experience what life would have been like had I attended UCSD instead of UCLA. I hope to bring this knowledge into my academic experience at UCLA, as well as in the future if I am fortunate enough to work on public policy.

One of my most important involvements I am involved with during the regular school year however, is the organization I co-founded on campus, known as Latino Leaders of Tomorrow at UCLA, which launched spring 2017. I came together with a couple of friends that had also participated in the freshman summer freshman program who I continued to keep in contact with, and after quickly realizing that students don’t know about on campus resources and where to seek out support on campus, as well as how to develop professionally despite learning how to develop academically during their time here, we decided to create an organization dedicated to allowing Latinx students grow and develop their knowledge in these areas. Our organization focuses on four pillars of focus: Personal, Professional, Academic, and Networking Development. We collaborate with UCLA Latino Alumni Association and community organizations to offer networking, personal, academic, and professional support to our peers. We are currently offering quarterly panels and workshops facilitated by student professionals on resources and leadership development on campus.

Who inspires you and why?

My parents are my inspiration, they are my drive to help my community. Although they spend long and difficult hours working every day to provide my brother and I a better future, they never complain, and have supported me in everything I have needed, from calming me down during late night stressing over exams, to driving 3+ hours from San Diego on a weekend just to get dinner with me when I need a quick break from school. They inspire me to be a better person, but to also give all the love that I can possibly give to others, because they do this so effortlessly and abundantly. Their constant battles and work allows me to thrive. I get to do what I love thanks to them, and I only hope to one day give them all they have given to me. My mentors at RC who continue to reach out to me like Jordan Harrison, Salina Villegas, and Noel Salunga, are also my greatest sources of inspiration. Hearing their experiences as first gen and students of color who have made it through the college experience motivate me to continue pushing forward.  

What is your favorite quote?

“Aqui se respira lucha”- Calle 13   (“Here we breathe struggle.”)