From her office at East High School, Itzel Hernandez spends her days helping first-generation and low income students pursue college. For Itzel, the job is much more than transitioning high school seniors to college, it’s about making a difference. Five years ago, she was one of those high school seniors.
Itzel, who graduated from the U last August with a bachelor’s degree in political science, is the oldest child of immigrant parents, neither of whom graduated from college. Their knowledge of post-secondary education was nonexistent. “As a first-generation minority surrounded by a predominately white student population at my high school, I felt embarrassed to ask for help,” she says. “I was completely unaware of the college application process and resources available. I researched online through blogs and YouTube videos on what I should do and how to apply.”
Initially intimidated by the process of applying for admission and financial aid, she made her way to the U campus and found resources like TRiO (a federal program providing academic success services to low-income and first generation college students and to those with disabilities) and LEAP (a course that enables new students to transition more confidently to college and to play an active role in their own education) and a supportive community of faculty and classmates who provided her with the guidance and empowerment she needed to succeed. While studying political science, her passion for her studies grew. “I aspire to work in my community, to create a positive change in society, and some day run for elected office in Utah,” she says.
Opportunities seem unlimited for students like Itzel, but the cost of education is a constant barrier between possibilities and reality. For local philanthropist Barbara Tanner, helping students like Itzel complete their degrees while maximizing their college opportunities is her passion. “After learning about students who are so close to finishing, yet cannot due to unexpected challenges, especially young single mothers who are raising children and working too, we felt moved to extend to these students, who had made every effort to get to the finish line on their own, a lifeline of hope,” says Barbara. She and her late husband established the Barbara and Norman Tanner Scholarship at the University of Utah in 2014—a “completion scholarship,” with a preference to support women who are close to graduating but are struggling to complete their baccalaureate degrees due to financial circumstances.
“Because of Barbara Tanner, this scholarship made it possible for me to intern this past summer at the Utah Lieutenant Governor’s Office,” Itzel says, of her summer internship, organized through the Hinckley Institute of Politics. “This was an incredible experience! Learning the inner workings of the office and the support it provides to constituents across the State of Utah was an impactful experience of my long-term goals.”
And now, working at East High, she helps students–like she was–prepare to access college. “Interacting with other students whose shoes I was once in truly inspires me,” she says. Itzel plans to apply to graduate school at the U to study public administration. Her story of success was made possible by the generosity of Barbara and Norman Tanner and their concern and commitment to help these students cross the finish line to graduation.