Juan Hernandez serves as the president of Tech DREAMers, a campus organization whose mission is to foster a community inclusive of DREAMers at Virginia Tech by advocating and educating others as to what DREAMers are, making resources available to all DREAMers that make higher education more obtainable, and advocating for immigration reform both at the state and federal levels.

A senior from Salem, Virginia, studying biochemistry in the College of Science with a minor in chemistry, Hernandez said he is most proud of his Mexican heritage and being a Mexican immigrant here in the United States. Getting involved with Tech DREAMers helped him find his place at Virginia Tech. While leading a campus organization has certainly influenced his experience, the highlight of his collegiate career came inside the classroom as a teaching assistant for the Biochemistry Lab course during the fall 2017 semester.

“It was an incredible experience,” Hernandez said. “I made a great connection with the students in my class, and even though it was an immense amount of work, it was always very fulfilling to help the students advance their knowledge. This would not have been possible if it was not for the experience and reputation I gained by joining Dr. Dennis Dean’s research group.”

Hernandez was originally recruited to work in Dean’s lab as part of a cohort of undergraduate students who were supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to study biological nitrogen fixation. He works closely with a research scientist to figure out how complex proteins that contain metals are assembled. Most of his responsibility involves using recombinant DNA techniques and performing background work for protein purification.

“I have persuaded Juan to continue working in my laboratory because he does a good job and our lab members enjoy working with him,” said Dean, professor of biochemistry and director of the Fralin Life Science Institute. “Over the years, I have had numerous undergraduate students work in my lab, and many of them have been very talented and gone on to have great careers. I expect the same for Juan. He has a great combination of talents, including natural intelligence, curiosity, an ability to perform experiments without a great deal of supervision, a willingness to take pointed criticism, and a great sense of humor.”

Hernandez is the recipient of an Aspire! Award for Preparing for a Life of Courageous Leadership, largely for his service to and advocacy for the community of undocumented students at Virginia Tech. He is also the recipient of a Presidential Scholarship Initiative scholarship. He’ll graduate with a 3.93 overall GPA and Dean’s List with Distinction honors.

The Tech DREAMers organization earned an Outstanding Achievement by an Organization award from Virginia Tech for hosting “I am an Immigrant Day” in April 2017 — an event that Hernandez played an instrumental role in organizing — as well as a Presentation Track Award by Housing and Residence Life for the presentation, “How to provide a more inclusive environment for undocumented students” in January 2017.

Dean’s advice for Hernandez as he embarks on the next chapter of his life is to stay grounded and be ready for new challenges. “I should probably ask him for advice,” said Dean. “He already has a great deal of emotional and intellectual maturity.”

Hernandez’s advice for fellow and prospective Hokies echoes that of Dean’s. “I think a lot of people come with a pretty solid plan as to what they want to do in college, and I think that is great. I also came into college with a pretty clear set of goals. But I think something that I have learned over time is that no one is really the same person that they were when they first entered the university. So, I would tell others to always be open to new experiences and to take new challenges during their time here at Virginia Tech. So many new possibilities are out there that won’t only advance one’s goals, but even take them in another direction.”

Photo by Christina Franusich

Written by Tiffany Woodall

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