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Reach for the Stars


When he flies over French Camp this week--a small town here in Northern California--he hopes some of the migrant farmers picking vegetables in the fields look up and realize they can also accomplish their own dreams, he told me a few months ago.

Jose Hernandez, son of migrant workers, will take off this week as a mission specialist in the shuttle Discovery. He grew up traveling from Mexico to Stockton with his family, picking seasonal vegetables until he was twelve years old and a local teacher told his parents they needed to settle down and let this bright young man, and his three older siblings, learn English and get a good education. The teacher, Marless Young, who taught Jose in a combined class of first and second graders in 1969--the same year Neil Armstrong walked on the moon--is quoted in our local paper, The Stockton Record this week as saying: "It just sends chills down my spine realizing there was a future astronaut sitting in my room." Jose credits her with being one of the people who inspired him.

But it was his parents who told him to keep his dreams alive. Every day after working in the fields, and aching from bending over so long ("cucumbers were the worst," he says) his parents would remind him of what his life would be like if he did not stay in school. Salvador and Julia Hernandez still live in Stockton. One of his sisters works at my university. José is a member of our Board of Regents.

Jose has never forgotten his roots in our community-and in Mexico. He comes back to the university frequently--not just to attend Board of Regents meetings, but to meet with local students and raise money for his foundation Reach for the Stars, which sponsors low-income students to go to college. A few months ago he was on campus meeting with students from a local high school, at an event sponsored by the School of International Studies. "Are you scared of going up in space?" asked one of the students. "Not as scared as I was sometimes walking home from school. I know what your lives are like," he said. "You need to stay in school and get a good education."

Jose, and the rest of the country knows what the future is likely to hold for many high school students here in Stockton. This week Newsweek magazine focused on the San Joaquin country where Stockton is located-our poverty, poor health, persistent drought, high unemployment, (close to 40% in some areas), school drop out rates, and the devastation that has been wrought from the foreclosure crisis. It is a story we know well. We see the foreclosure signs and know how many people have been devastated by the financial calamity we are experiencing. What the country ignores is the community spirit that is alive and well in Stockton-solving our own problems, and this week, watching our own rocket scientist getting ready to launch. Hundreds of people turned out last night at my university in our student center to celebrate our homegrown son.

From migrant worker to Mission specialist--sound farfetched? But his has always been the dream of immigrants--to go to school, get a great education and follow their own dreams. How many teachers of poor young immigrant children look into their student's eyes each morning and envision the next José Hernandez? How many politicians, who denigrate immigrants, understand their own immigrant heritage?

Yes, Stockton is experiencing hard times. Yes, the country is in trouble. But fixing our problems isn't rocket science--good education combined with access to health care sets the foundation for the future of young people. As Jose reaches for the stars this week we should not only honor his individual achievement but envision and create a country that recognizes the potential of all children.