MERIT alum Hernandez credits program for helping her in pursuit of helping others

By Tony E. Windsor

After over 40 years at the helm of an academic program that has helped mentor and prepare hundreds of area minority youth for success after high school, John Hollis finds great pride in each individual story of accomplishment. Hollis is founder and director of the Minority Educational Regional Incentive Training (MERIT) program. The MERIT program has been providing academic enrichment and college preparatory opportunities for minority students from the greater-Seaford area and across Sussex County since it was started by Hollis with support from Seaford DuPont, in 1974.

Initially created by engineers at the Seaford DuPont plant, the catalyst for the program was to help foster the academic success of minorities, namely those of African-American, Indian and Latino descent. Since MERIT started, over 330 minority participants have gone on to attend institutions of higher learning. That is 97 percent of all the students who have been enrolled in the program.

As great as Hollis' enthusiasm is for the high rate of academic success among alumni of MERIT, it may not rise to the level of passion felt by one area MERIT alumna, Sara Hernandez, an engineering student at Virginia Tech, in Blacksburg, Va. Hernandez says she credits the MERIT program with not only helping her be prepared for the academic rigors of college, but also providing her the skills necessary to find ways to share her passion for helping others.

Hernandez is a 2014 graduate of Lake Forest High School and she recalls that in her sophomore year, her mother, Carmen de Jesus, who works in children services, told her that she would be "doing this thing" to help her prepare for college. "I had no idea what MERIT was, but my mother told me I would be doing it, so I went," she said.

She admits that at first, MERIT was not exactly the most convenient thing for someone her age. "It was held on Saturday morning and I remember how tired I would be when I had to get up and go all the way to Seaford to attend," she said. However, she said it was not long before she realized the value of the weekly program. "I was excited about the engineering competitions we were involved in at MERIT," she said. "Then later in high school I valued everything else the program did for us. It also provided a significant help to me in both personal and professional development skills."

Hernandez said she quickly realized that success is not always measured in grade point averages. "It is not just about the GPA, it is also about how well you communicate and develop a personality that allows you to talk to people. I have found in college and interviewing for internships, I am able to talk to the interviewer and keep them engaged so they are interested in knowing even more about what I feel I have to offer. This is a skill that I was able to start developing with the tools I gained from MERIT," she said.

Hernandez's appreciation for both academic and verbal communication skills led her to steer her collegiate career to a major in engineering and a minor in communications at Virginia Tech.

Her fascination with engineering is something she feels started largely when she visited her father, Hector Hernandez's workplace at Proctor & Gamble in Dover. "I remember when I was a little girl I visited my Dad's job. I recall walking into this big factory and seeing all of these huge machines," she said.

"It seemed like endless rows of machines. I quickly realized that every one of these big machines was working together for one project; one goal. This really fascinated me."

Her fascination for engineering and education blossomed and she says she is fortunate that she has been blessed with having her parents as her biggest support system. "They both have great careers and they value education," she said. "I have heard so many stories from my mother about her work in child support," Hernandez said. "She works hard to support me in my education and recognizes that there are many children that she knows of who do not have this type of support at home. She knows how important this is to a child. My parents have always been there for me and I have always been able to count on them."

Hollis considers Sara Hernandez to represent a living model of the type of development skills the MERIT programs strives to provide to its members.

"From a 40-plus year perspective as director of the MERIT program, Sara Hernandez is truly exceptional," Hollis said. "Sara brings a dynamic blend of academic excellence, dedication with a tireless work ethic, and a rare ability to take herself out of the center of the focus. That trait is often not found in success-oriented people who tend to keep themselves as a top priority. Sara devotes her amazing talents to helping others both spiritually and practically. Sara thinks big. Sara is a perfect example of what we work for in the MERIT program."

Hollis' ringing endorsement of Hernandez is supported by efforts that she takes on, even while balancing extremely rigorous college classroom and study schedules. While she says she now actually has two homes - Felton, Delaware where her parents live, and Blacksburg, Virginia, where she resides in an apartment near the Virginia Tech campus, she stays busy offering her service to others in both locations.

"I am currently doing an engineering internship at Proctor & Gamble back in Delaware. So I am happy to be spending time with my family this summer," she said. "But anytime I am making my way back to Delaware, I contact Mr. Hollis and let him know so I can have the opportunity to share with the MERIT students.

There is so much that I know now about how important it is to start preparing for the hard work of college while you are still in high school. I sat in those same seats that the MERIT students are sitting in now."

Hernandez says it is imperative that students recognize a specific mindset early as it pertains to what is needed to be successful in college. "You do not just wake up one morning in your senior year of high school and say, 'I am ready to go to college.' It just does not happen like that. The study skills and necessary hard work ethic must be developed early on and encouraged. This is what MERIT does. It encourages students in pursuing higher education and helps them recognize the skills they have and the skills they will need as they progress toward this academic goal," she said.

Hernandez said she wants to help the MERIT students avoid some of the preconceived notions she had about college life. "I was doing really well in high school and was confident that I had the skills to simply continue this momentum right into college. I just seemed to learn easily in high school. But, when I got to Virginia Tech I quickly realized that as hard as I thought I had worked in high school, I was not prepared for the college schedule. I had to reach out and not be afraid to ask for help in my freshman year. These are the kinds of things I feel I can communicate to the students of MERIT to help them start preparing for a successful college experience."

Back at Virginia Tech, Hernandez has developed the discipline to maintain the rigors of college academia, but also reach out and offer her knowledge and passion for helping others to participate in a volunteer-driven organization called "Service Without Borders." This is an interdisciplinary, student-led organization with a mission to share the spirit of Virginia Tech's motto, Ut Prosim (That I May Serve), locally and globally by providing assistance to communities in need. The Ut Prosim dictates a combination of its three missions of learning, discovery, and engagement as a means to provide service to others.

According to its website, Service Without Borders (SWB) projects engage students in real-world design, project management, construction, marketing, fund raising, and cultural experiences. In January 2016, a group of Virginia Tech students and professors traveled to Nepal to assess the earthquake damage in the culturally Tibetan community of Dhumba. In partnership with the Dhumba village leaders, the SWB team decided that rehabilitation of the village irrigation system would have the greatest effect on agricultural productivity and livelihoods in the community.

Locally, Service Without Borders is involved with projects in and around the Blacksburg community.

Hernandez said she enjoys her work with SWB, and especially appreciates that it is an interdisciplinary organization that is not restricted to engineering or any other individual area of study. "I enjoy the fact that we have a representation of so many different perspectives," she said. "We have a variety of backgrounds and perspectives and we bring them all together for a common goal. I am doing my summer internship, so I will miss the trip to India. I remember traveling to Honduras on a mission trip with my church. It is so rewarding to help people who are in need. I am hoping that I will be able to travel with Service Without Borders for the upcoming winter trip to India."

Hernandez feels confident that she has grown in so many ways since graduating high school and beginning her college studies at Virginia Tech. While she quickly credits the love and support of her parents and family for her academic success, she is equally fast to express her deep appreciation for what the MERIT program has done for her.

"I will always be indebted to MERIT for what it was able to teach me," she said. "I will forever remain an active part of the MERIT family and will always want to visit and share with the students," she said. "I have learned, thanks largely to MERIT, that my success is measured in a variety of ways, not just through my GPA. I currently have a GPA of 3.04. This is not a perfect 4.0, but I am so proud of this because I worked extremely hard for it. I have always had a respect for people who go to college and also hold down a full-time job. I recognize great value in the ability to be disciplined in getting things done when it has to be done. I have learned to focus on what I need to accomplish in my studies and not allow myself to fall victim to things that while more enjoyable, can distract me from doing what I need to do. MERIT has been a big part of helping me develop these skills, and while it makes college very difficult at times, it results in a great sense of pride in my 3.04 GPA."

Hernandez said she has not totally made up her mind about what she plans to do after college, and she is okay with that; maintaining a healthy sense of humor about what at this point is a less than definitive idea of her vocational future. "Maybe I will work in a factory, or maybe I will start my own business. I am not totally sure, and I am alright with that. The only thing I am sure about is that I hope the day will come when I can finally relax and get a full night's sleep."

As for her future with the MERIT program, both during college and beyond, Hernandez is a bit more certain. "MERIT will forever be a part of my life," she said. "I have lived my entire life as an only child and MERIT has given me the opportunity to have little brothers and sisters from different mothers. Just like any family, we will have our reunions. After college, I plan on being an even greater part of MERIT. They have forever changed my life and I hope to get involved so I can change other students' lives."

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