Ask a student on campus when they first knew that Carolina was the place for them, and many would answer, “As early as four years old.” Indeed, for many, Carolina blue runs through their veins. For others, however, that dream doesn’t manifest itself until much later. Consider Jackie Cerón-Hernández, who hadn’t entertained a notion of attending Carolina until her senior year in high school, when she first heard about the University while applying for college.
Jackie’s story begins in Mexico, where she spent the first 12 years of her life. Like many children, her intended career path was constantly changing and her move to the United States changed the trajectory of her future plans. She knew she had to go to college if she wanted to follow one of her many career paths but that dream seemed out of reach due to the high cost of attending college. With the help of a merit scholarship awarded to Jackie by the University of North Carolina, her dreams of obtaining a degree were realized. In her time here at Carolina, Jackie has served as the MLK 5K Coordinator, a summer intern in D.C., and a mentor for other students. Just prior to her graduation from UNC-CH, Jackie described her journey from Mexico to Carolina and beyond:
Could you describe your childhood and family structure growing up?
I was born and raised in El Estado de Mexico and I lived there until I was 12 years old. I lived with both of my grandparents on my mom’s side. My dad was not around during my childhood because he was going back and forth between the US and Mexico. So, for a long time, I did not have a father figure. I do remember every two weeks we would go to Tlaxcala, the state where my grandparents are from. That is where I spent most of my childhood.
Why did your family decide to move to the United States?
We moved here because my father had been coming back and forth from Mexico to the United States. He finally decided that it was time for all of us to come with him. He didn’t want us to be separated and he thought he could give us a better life in the United States. We moved to Durham, NC when I was 12 years old and have been there ever since.
Were there any defining moments or events growing up that led you to choose your current path?
Ever since I was little, I would mention all these different types of careers to my mom. I would tell people I wanted be a chef, model, a doctor — everything and anything. For the longest time, I said I was going to be an accountant like my uncle or get involved in business like my aunt, but that changed when I got to high school. My pediatrician inspired me to look into health careers. I shifted everything I had wanted to do to something in the health field. When I got to high school, I continued on the health path, but when I came to Carolina and started taking science classes, I learned that healthcare was not my passion. Then, someone in the Public Policy department, a professor, reached out to me at the perfect moment and told me about the department. I ended up liking public policy courses, so I switched my major.
Which aspects of Carolina aided in your decision to choose this school?
My whole high school career I had never heard of Carolina. I knew I had to go to college and get a degree, but as a first generation college student and an immigrant, I was not fully aware of the schools or my options. When it came to applying, I applied to a bunch of different schools in North Carolina. I ended up here because I was offered a merit scholarship that covered all costs. There was no way my parents could afford my education, which is why I chose to come here, because of my scholarship.
What did you find most rewarding about your work as the MLK Coordinator for the 5K?
I was never expecting this position. I had originally planned on working with the recruitment side of DMA. When I was offered this position, I took it because I was interested in what the office stood for. The 5K was a totally new initiative, which I began working on during my sophomore year. No one had any experience but we were all excited because we were raising money for a good cause. There is a lot of behind the scenes work, such as trying to reach out to sponsors and organizations that are receiving the funds. The most rewarding part is all the work you put into the program over the course of the semester finally comes together. You get to witness everything you planned. Then you hear people talk about how much they liked the event, the idea of getting people together for a cause, and raising awareness for the cause.
What other extracurricular activities have you been involved with at Carolina or in the Chapel Hill community?
Since my first year at Carolina, I’ve been involved with DMA. I started with MSRC (Minority Students Recruitment Committee), just being on panels for students and parents, helping out during registration and recruitment events. Then I decided to take on a leadership position within DMA and that’s how I came to be the 5K Coordinator. In addition, I’ve been a part of NCsli, a mentoring program for high-schoolers, where I served as an English instructor for sophomores. I was part of the Masters of Accounting mentoring program where they bring in different speakers, [and] put on workshops about how to be professional. I served on the Teaching Awards Committee to help select the Lifetime Mentor Award and then I served as a Scholarship Ambassador through the Office of Scholarship and Student Aid, [which is] made up of a group of students who are supposed to talk to university administrators and potential donors about why their money is making a difference at the University.
You spent some time interning in DC. Describe that experience.
I was in DC for a semester and the summer. During the semester, I was there through the Honors Public Policy program, where you get to intern at a place of your choice and you get to take two classes. I took a class on domestic policy as well as [one on] foreign policy. I applied to intern with the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics out of the Department of Education. In my role with the Initiative, I was in charge of social media to share resources that the Initiative has created for people and to amplify that through social media or recognizing students that we heard about in the department. I also helped lead the Women of Color STEM conference at Arizona State University. I also helped create a guide for DACA students to help them know what to do post-graduation. Then I interned with [NC] Congressman G.K. Butterfield, just doing clerical work like answering phones, emails, White House tours, House Congress tours, greeting people who came into the office. Actually, for a week, our supervisor was out of the office on vacation and my co-intern and I had to run the office! Sometimes I would get to go to briefings either on the Hill or at universities. I would go, sit in, take notes, and write memos for the staff in charge of immigration or transportation.
What are your plans post-graduation? Where do you see yourself in five years?
Plan A is to go to graduate school. I applied to the Masters of Accounting program [at Carolina] and I should hear back about that [soon]. I will go for a year and then I will practice accounting for a couple of years. If not, plan B is to work around the area within higher education, since that’s what I’ve spent my time as an undergrad doing. Regardless of where I end up or what I end up doing, I would like to be a role model or mentor for underrepresented students who have struggled like I have and provide [the kind of] moral support that I was offered throughout college. I want to show students that there are different people who look like them working in a variety of fields. Lastly, I would like to start a scholarship fund for students trying to get into graduate school because there are many funds available for undergraduates but not as many for graduate students.
What lessons have you learned in your time at Carolina that you hope to carry with you as you start a new chapter in your life?
To be flexible, open minded, and always keep your options open. Don’t have a set plan. Have an idea, but from my experience, you may encounter different opportunities that you have never heard of before and then you end up pursuing a different route. Be open to change.
What advice would you give to incoming Carolina students or students currently here at Carolina?
Don’t be afraid to speak up if you’re struggling. Use your resources and get to know your classmates, peers, work peers, boss, etc. Every person knows someone that you may need to know and they can get you connected to different opportunities.
By Brittany Grant