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From California fields to outer space, Jose Hernandez brings perseverance to Common Experience

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Astronaut, engineer and LBJ Distinguished Lecturer Jose Hernandez.
Astronaut, engineer and LBJ Distinguished Lecturer Jose Hernandez visited Texas State Sept. 25 to speak on innovation as a part of the Common Experience program.
Photo by May Olvera

Astronaut and engineer Jose Hernandez recalled his path Tuesday night from crossing international lines as a migrant farmworker to crossing interplanetary lines as an astronaut.

Students, faculty and members of the community all came together for the sold out LBJ Distinguished Lecturer Series held in Evans Auditorium. The event highlighted the Common Experience theme, Innovation, and focused on the importance of family and education.

This year’s Common Experience theme was the brainchild of the Common Experience Director Twister Marquiss. He said this year’s theme needed a change of pace because three of the last four were about commemorating pivotal moments in history.

“It had been a while since we had done an event looking forward, and I thought this was just such a great opportunity,” Marquiss said.

Marquiss said this lecture was also particularly exciting. He said while it looked toward the future, it also touched on the vision President Lyndon B. Johnson had for higher education.

Since 1973, the LBJ Distinguished Lecturer Series has fulfilled President Johnson’s dream of enriching students’ lives through public lectures from renowned individuals.

In 1965, President Johnson signed the Higher Education Act, which is responsible for the funding of Upward Bound, an after-school program that helps high school students from disadvantaged backgrounds prepare for college. Hernandez said he credits this program for his own achievements. In the crowd, about 50 students currently affiliated with Upward Bound attended the event.

“Upward Bound was instrumental in pursuing my dreams,” Hernandez said. “They exposed me to STEM. They made me lose fear in it and helped me embrace it.”

In a mix of English and Spanish, Hernandez began his lecture by recalling his life story. Hernandez was born in California to a family of migrant farm workers who traveled between the U.S. and Mexico, staying in each country only for months at a time. Hernandez said constant interruptions during the school year were not conducive to a good education.

In second grade, he found stability when his teacher spoke to his parents about the harmful effects of these interruptions. Hernandez said after that the trips between Mexico and the U.S. shrunk to being only weeks long and centered around Christmas vacations.

Hernandez said his dream of space exploration began soon after when he was only 10 years old. He recalls adjusting the antenna on his television in 1972 to watch a fuzzy Apollo 17 launch into space with his father. When Hernandez told his father of his dreams, he was supportive and gave him a roadmap to success.

“He said, ‘Mijo, I think you can do it. But if you want to do it, you have to follow a simple five-ingredient recipe’,” Hernandez said.

The first step was to decide what he wanted to be in life. The second step was to recognize how far he was from his goal. The third to draw a roadmap from where he was to where he wanted to go. Fourth, go to college and get an education. Fifth, always deliver more than people expect. Hernandez added his own sixth ingredient: perseverance.

The first time Hernandez got rejected from NASA, he did not give up. He was rejected 10 more times. On attempt 12, Hernandez became a part of the 19th class of NASA astronauts and joined the crew of mission STS-128.

After showing a video summarizing mission STS-128, Hernandez said upon his return to Earth, he landed at the Edwards Air Force Base in California, some 80 miles from where he picked strawberries as a farm worker.

Lecture attendee and public administration senior Catherine Wicker said Hernandez’s emphasis on perseverance was what stood out most to her.

“He really hit on the fact that it doesn’t matter what your roots are,” Wicker said.

Austin resident Brandon James said the most interesting part for him was when Hernandez spoke about how his perspective literally and figuratively changed when he went to space. James said Hernandez’s comments about the political geography of the earth falling away impacted him greatly.

“We really think about things from a very small level sometimes, but that bigger perspective changes you,” James said. “That was one of the most profound things he shared.”

Hernandez said while he was in space he could make out the general shapes of some countries, but he could not tell exactly where borders ended or began.

“I had to go to space to realize we are all one,” Hernandez said. “Borders are only created to separate us.”

At the end of his lecture, Hernandez received a standing ovation.

For more information on the Common Experience, visit their website or follow them on Twitter at @TXSTCE. To stay up to date with Jose Hernandez, follow his Twitter: @Astro_Jose.

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