Rebecca Hernandez loves to learn new things.
“My hobby is starting hobbies,” she says. Hernandez, who joined the university in June as associate vice president of intercultural engagement and faculty development, has tried her hand at all manner of activities – but the result is usually the same. “I buy all the stuff to do it like I’m going to be real gung ho, and then I do it once. Do you know how expensive card-making is?” she says, laughing. “It turns out it’s really boring.”
Hernandez may not have much patience for arts and crafts, but she’s fiercely dedicated to her lifelong work of bringing people of different colors, cultures and backgrounds together.
“My passion is to create safe and just spaces so that others can reach their full potential,” she says. And with an undergraduate student population at George Fox that is nearly 30 percent non-White or ethnic minorities – more diverse, by comparison, than the city of Portland – Hernandez has found the perfect place to ply her passion.
Recently Hernandez sat down with the Journal to discuss her unique perspective on cultural diversity, her new position and the importance of embracing our differences.
Talk a little bit about the scope of your position.
My work is in intercultural development, both for faculty and for the institution as a whole. Intercultural development is really about helping faculty to create inclusive classrooms, to help them develop their own skill sets around engaging difference, and to understand how that fits into God’s call for all of us.
My passion is to help people do their very best; to teach, train, support and collaborate with all of our students, faculty, staff and our president to create something more. To create what we really envision as God’s best; God’s best diversity, God’s best people. My work is part of that, to come alongside and to bring my expertise, which is something that I’ve studied and that I’ve worked hard at – to really share that with people. And then to also help by holding up a mirror to us. And that’s not always a popular thing, but that’s what I do.
What in your life has influenced your perspective on cultural diversity?
I grew up in a predominantly Mexican-American community, and we worked in the fields in the summer – we were called “settled-out” migrant workers, and that meant we would stay in one place and work at certain times of the year. As a kid, everybody looked forward to summer break – but I hated summer break because it meant we were going to work all summer in the field. I learned a lot about issues of justice and issues of healthcare access working in the fields.
I remember as a kid, it was toward the end of the summer and I was really excited because we were going back to school, but a little girl next to me was sad. She said, ‘I don’t get to go back to school.’ Her family was going on to the next picking, which was in California. I was shocked. And that’s when I felt that difference of what it means to have a home base. Later, my parents decided to become factory workers because they knew we needed an education. And I think now, what an amazing foresight and sacrifice that my parents made to do that.
What’s the biggest challenge we face as a university in embracing our differences?
I think the biggest challenge we face is moving out of our own comfort zone and examining our own self and our own beliefs. One of the biggest strategies that the enemy uses to separate us is to not talk about hard things. So we don’t talk about race, we don’t talk about ethnicity, we don’t talk about discrimination. We do this thing where we say, ‘I don’t see color.’ The problem with that is, then you don’t see me, then you don’t see the fullness of who I am. I think the enemy uses that – our fear of talking about hard things – to separate us. It’s when we can really talk about the hard things that we then grow.
What’s the most life-giving aspect of what you do?
I think my biggest reward out of all of this is seeing students become who God intends them to be – or at least to start down that path. When they work out their own ethnic identity and explore, they see that the thing they’ve always seen as a negative, that the world has told them is wrong with them, is actually God’s gift. It’s how God created them, and that creation is a good thing. God looked at that creation and said, it is good. He looked at me, as a person of color, as a woman, at this moment, in this time, in this place, and said, it is good. Now that’s a cool thing. So helping people to see that and to experience that, and then to move forward as they pass that gift on to other people is a big deal. That’s my life’s work, and that is what rewards me every day.
Big picture, what are your hopes for George Fox?
This is a good place. I think there’s a good heart here, a good desire to embrace diversity. If you don’t do the work in your own heart, the rest doesn’t matter – it’s just window dressing. I believe we’re past that at George Fox. What’s next is figuring out how do we systematize change, how do we hold each other accountable to that change? That’s going to be the struggle, because we’re growing fast. We want to do this, we want to do that. How do you prioritize this in a way that isn’t a check-off on a list somewhere that we just want to get done and move on. It doesn’t work that way. This is lifelong work.