Updated: Feb 16
Author: Tara Kyle
Published: January 14, 2015
For Belinda Hernandez-Arriaga, a typical day might look something like this: wake up in Half Moon Bay, take her daughters to school, drive to Berkeley for her job as a social worker, put the kids to bed, and squeeze in a few hours for the community organization she founded.
In between all that, she has a dissertation to complete.
While challenging, Hernandez-Arriaga’s experience as a doctoral student in the University of San Francisco’s nationally recognized International and Multicultural Education (IME) program is not unusual. Many graduate students juggle careers, parental responsibilities and competing priorities as they work to further their educations. But time is not the only hurdle. The financial sacrifices of investing in an advanced degree are real. And for Hernandez-Arriaga's family, all this goes double: her husband, a deputy sheriff, is pursuing a master's degree at USF while the couple raises their three children.
Fortunately for Hernandez-Arriaga, a brand new resource is helping her to the finish line. In the final stretch of her doctoral program, Hernandez-Arriaga is getting an uncommon boost. She and four classmates are the recipients of a new, donor-supported scholarship for IME graduate students. The scholarship gives priority to students who are within nine credits of completing dissertations focused on social justice.
“It’s huge. It’s given me a lifeline to finish,” she says.
In the world of higher education, graduate students face challenges that are markedly different from undergraduates. While there are federal, state, and institutional grant and scholarship programs based on financial need for undergraduates, the federal government provides very little assistance (other than loans) to graduate students.
Moreover, most of the graduate-level grants and scholarships offered by universities come in the form of teaching and research assistantships that require a significant time commitment from the student, according to Susan Murphy, USF’s senior associate dean and director of Enrollment and Financial Services. Finding the time for hard-to-find opportunities like these isn’t easy for students like Hernandez-Arriaga.
The difficulty of balancing it all can put a strain on even the most driven of graduate students. Some wind up delaying graduation or, in rare cases, simply dropping out just as they are nearing the end of their journey, according to IME department chair Susan Katz. Those cases are heartbreaking to watch, especially at a time when the IME department has gained attention as the nation’s first institution to offer specialization in human rights education.
The IME scholarship was established to make sure students like Hernandez-Arriaga can complete their final semesters. Without it, Hernandez-Arriaga might not have been able to keep going. She started her doctoral work in 2009. But just a few months ago, she had to reduce her fall class load to cut costs.
Her friend and fellow scholarship recipient Garrett Naiman also had to slow his progress toward graduation, due to a mix of career responsibilities and medical issues. Naiman is deputy director of a college access program at the University of California, Berkeley.
“It’s a financial decision that is only for the passionate,” Naiman says of pursuing an Ed.D., which doesn’t offer the same post-graduation salary payoff as terminal degrees in law or business. “It doesn’t escape me that I’m very lucky to have been given this scholarship.”
Thanks to the IME scholarship, both Hernandez-Arriaga and Naiman are back on track. They expect to receive their diplomas in the spring of 2016. Following that, both recipients plan to devote their careers toward advancing the common good.
“I really believe that my education is not mine. It belongs to the children and families in my community,” says Hernandez-Arriaga, whose dissertation focuses on psychological trauma faced by immigrant children who are undocumented or of mixed status. “I feel that the only way I can be a voice for my community is to get my doctorate — so I can teach others what I’ve learned.”
After graduation, she will pursue a full-time faculty position while carrying on the work of her three-year-old community organization, Ayudando Latinos a Soñar (Helping Latinos to Dream). Its goal is to promote social justice while building pride, leadership, and ultimately, academic success among Mexican immigrant youth through a family-focused program of mariachi lessons, ballet folklórico, and tutoring.
As a first generation college student herself, Hernandez-Arriaga’s degree will be the culmination of a dream delayed by the death of her father 15 years ago. An oil field and rig worker who sometimes relied on jobs that took him away from the family for weeks or months, he wanted badly for his daughter to do what he couldn’t — take her education all the way to the highest level.
“I’m so grateful for this opportunity,” she says. “There is no sufficient thanks that someone can give for the gift of education.”
Your gifts are changing the world, one student at a time. Consider creating an opportunity for another student.