Sunday, December 2, 2018

Journey takes former Cuyamaca College student to Ph.D. program

Ritchie Hernandez
Ritchie Hernandez moved to the East County from high school with no car and little money. But he had plenty of ambition. Now, thanks to Cuyamaca College, he’s now thriving at UC San Diego’s Ph.D. program in organic chemistry.

“My training in general chemistry at Cuyamaca College put me head and shoulders above many of my classmates in my undergraduate chemistry courses at UCSD,” Hernandez said. “I would not be where I am without Cuyamaca College. It was just a great environment for me and perfect for what I was looking for.”

Hernandez embodies how Cuyamaca College, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, has transformed tens of thousands of lives for the better since its founding in 1978. His journey, though, was unlike almost any other.

Born to deaf parents, Hernandez became conversant in American Sign Language as a toddler. He didn’t speak until he was 3, and his first spoken language was Spanish, which was learned from his paternal grandparents who helped raise him.

His challenges were only beginning. Because his parents were deaf, he and an older brother were pretty much left on their own in navigating their way through school. “Children born to deaf parents have no choice but to mature quickly,” he said. “My brother and I were our own representatives throughout school.”

That maturity was invaluable during his parents’ divorce while he was in middle school. Neither had a well-paying job. “There were times when money was very hard to come by,” said Hernandez, who helped pay the bills as a teen when he landed a paid internship at Escondido’s San Pasqual High School that had Hernandez working with the school’s physical therapy program, coordinating first aid and rehabilitative exercises for athletes who found themselves recovering from injury. That led to an interest in a medical career.

Going to a university was unaffordable. Staying in Escondido was out of the question.

“I resolved that I didn’t want to be stuck where I was,” Hernandez said. “I needed a change of venue. I needed to move away.”

Diploma in hand, he researched community colleges in the region, rented a room in La Mesa, secured a job in the local retail industry and enrolled at Cuyamaca College in the spring of 2013.

It turned out to be the best move of his life. His defining moment came during his second semester at Cuyamaca.

“It wasn’t until the chemistry courses that I actually found something that I enjoyed,” he said. No longer did he want to become a medical doctor. His future would be connected to chemistry and research.

Hernandez also became an even better student. “When I applied myself at community college, I found that getting a 4.0 was not difficult. But the first exam I had in Laurie LeBlanc’s class, I got a ‘D.’ I studied, but I clearly did not study to the rigor that Laurie demands. I got ‘A’s’ on all my tests after that, but that first test brought me down and I still ended up with a ‘B’ in the class. I remember promising her I would never get a ‘B’ in her class again.”

He didn’t.

“Ritchie is one of the most naturally gifted students I have ever had in a chemistry class,” LeBlanc said. “He is a natural researcher. I'm so proud of his accomplishments and expect him to do great things.”

He is well on his way. In the spring of 2015, he was invited to the National Science Foundation’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates program at UCSD. Investigating the geophysics and chemistry involved with the molecular transfer from ocean surfaces to aerosols – or the interface of the ocean with the atmosphere – marked Hernandez’s first opportunity to engage in serious laboratory research.

He enrolled at UCSD that fall. Two years later he secured his bachelor’s degree in physical chemistry. Hernandez began his doctoral studies this fall with a $40,000 fellowship from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Graduate Scholarship Programs, which is aimed at diversifying the Ph.D. degree-holding population in the sciences, technology, engineering and mathematics – also known as STEM. 

While Hernandez remains interested in a career focused on research, he’s also keeping his options open.

“With the mentorship I received through Laurie LeBlanc and Cuyamaca College, I can see teaching being a big part of my career.”