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Olivia Hernandez

English instructor’s roots tie her to students

Instructor Olivia Hernández roots run deep in the Yakima Valley. The granddaughter of migrant workers, her path took a significant turn during high school when she enrolled in the Running Start program at Yakima Valley College. This choice became the catalyst for a transformative journey, shaping her passion and paving the way for her future.

“I think about myself as a Running Start student a lot now that I’m an instructor at this college,” says Hernández. “This is not the path I would’ve gone on without Running Start. It put me into a college classroom at 16. Which was not a place I thought I belonged. I had so much anxiety and imposter syndrome even then, and really bought into what I assumed people expected of me. Doing Running Start not only helped me see that I did belong in college, but that I could thrive here.”

After Running Start, Hernández was awarded a Gates Foundation Scholarship which enabled her to continue her studies at Seattle University where she earned a bachelor’s degree in English literature, along with minors in Spanish and film studies. She later earned a master’s degree in in English literature and language from the University of Washington and, after working in the Seattle area for nearly ten years, returned to the Yakima Valley to teach at YVC in 2018.

“I always knew I wanted to pursue a career where I would be writing a lot. I had a lot of incredible English teachers growing up, so I think I always had an interest toward wanting to go into this field. I think seeing how much fun and passion my English teachers at YVC had for their work introduced me to the possibilities of doing this work at a two-year college,” said Hernández.

Olivia Hernández class
Olivia Hernández discusses writing with purpose during a recent English class.

Although not technically a first-generation college student, Hernández shares much with students who claim the title.

“I think of myself as 1.5 generation college student,” she said. “I have multiple people in my life who went to college while raising kids. I used to go to classes at YVC with my mom when she was a student here. My family has given me insight into some of the experiences our students are having and help me think about how to be supportive.”

Known for her passion for students and their success, Hernández was awarded the Robert M. Leadon Excellence in Teaching Award from the Yakima Valley College Foundation in 2022.

Student Alexa Lara, who has taken several English courses from Hernández, said the instructor’s interest in each student as an individual stands out and that her unique approach to teaching reinvigorated her interest in writing.

“I enjoyed the classes I took with Dr. Hernández because they gave me the opportunity to explore my creativity and rediscover my passion for the subject,” says Lara. “The thing that worried me the most about coming to YVC was that I had no desire to write an essay again after high school. However, after enrolling in her classes, all I wanted to do was write. She gives us the opportunity to explore our writing and see where it leads us.” —

William Weeks, whose taken both English 101 and 102 courses with Hernández agrees with Lara evaluation of the instructor.

“I love the way she teaches, she’s so kind and always considerate of her students,” said Weeks. “When she incorporates her personal life into the curriculum it makes her seem more than just the teacher, it makes her so much more relatable as a person and helps remove the gap. Having her as a teacher makes me want to come to class, and personally it makes me sad when I can’t make it.”

“I enjoyed the classes I took with Dr. Hernández because they gave me the opportunity to explore my creativity and rediscover my passion for the subject.” —  Student Alexa Lara

A key element to Hernández’s success as an instructor lies in the care and help, she displays for her students and in curating coursework that appeals to them — often taking lessons outside of the traditional themes of formatting, essay writing and grammar.

“Because the content she teaches is mostly around culture and identity, her class builds critical awareness and analytical skills,” says Lara. “We explore many genres, establishing that everyone has the ability to write and that you don’t have to write in a certain way or use a lot of fancy vocabulary; when she teaches, it is evident that she is passionate about whatever she is teaching that day. Thanks to her, I’m reading more about topics I’ve never been interested in learning more about, which inspires me to keep researching and working on my writing and reading skills.”

Hernández recently completed her Ph.D. at the University of Washington with a combined focus on composition studies and Chicanx art and literature and believes this accomplishment helps to further connect her with her students.

“My family’s experiences help me to do the culturally responsive work that I try to do in my courses,” she said. “I try to be attentive to students with similar experiences. Me being a woman, Mexican-American, Chicana, there are lots of spaces at our college where I connect with and relate to our students around college, culture and language.”

Hernández, left, talks with students during class.

Hernández has also focused her energies on creating new curriculum that appeals to the wide range of interests in the classroom.

“My dissertation was about Chicana punk pedagogy in composition. I’m using Mexican-American art, cultural and social activist writing, and am trying to bring these themes together in writing studies in my 101 courses. This quarter in my 101 course we are working on zines, which have roots in the punk community and enable students to talk about diverse topics that really matter to them personally.”

Lara noted Hernández’s background and ability to directly relate to her students contribute to the power of her teaching.

“She has also experienced personally what it’s like to be a Mexican granddaughter of an immigrant family trying to further her education without yet having a clear concept of what she wants to major in,” Lara said. “I can also connect with her because she takes into consideration the different needs from her students. Her willingness to put in the effort is something I truly admire.”

Story by Stefanie Menard, AA-DTA ’05, communications consultant. Photos by Matthew Barton, graphic designer/multimedia content producer.

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