First-generation college graduate says Nepantla Program ‘saved my life’

Jessy Hernandez looks out the window of his new apartment and remembers his life across the street.

As a child, he and his parents lived in a van for a week in an Albertson’s parking lot at Boulder Highway and Tropicana Avenue.

Hernandez, 22, graduated from Nevada State College on May 5 with a degree in interdisciplinary studies.

“It was difficult at first,” Hernandez said. “I’m not an above-and-beyond type of student. I was someone who didn’t care about school much at first. When it came to the point to go to college, I was like, ‘What am I going to do with my life?’”

Hernandez is a first-generation college graduate. His mom and dad emigrated from Mexico. Hernandez is also the first on his dad’s side to graduate from high school.

He had planned to attend the College of Southern Nevada before Nevada State College reached out to him to see if he would join the new created Nepantla Program in 2012.

Hernandez was in the first graduating class of the Nepantla Program, which helps first-generation college students transistion from high school by providing lessons in community outreach, leadership and cultural awareness.

According to the program’s website, Nepantla is a term from the Aztec language Nahuatl — meaning “in-between” or “torn between worlds.”

There are 21 students enrolled in the program, and Hernandez is one of the six who graduated May 5, according to Leilani Carreno, the program’s director.

“We just find that there’s this kind of third space that Nepantla will be,” said Dr. Leila Pazargadi, the program’s founder. “We try to make it a home-away-from-home environment, or a network for students who may not have a firm place academically when they start.”

Hernandez was born in San Fernando, California, and his family moved to Southern Nevada when he was about 6. His parents moved to get him out of the “slums of Hollywood,” Hernandez said.

“(Graduation) is more of a bigger deal for (my mom) than it is for me, just for the fact that where I grew up before in the past, we tried to get away from that,” he said. “They moved to Las Vegas to give me a better opportunity.”

Hernandez plans to take a year off before applying for UNLV’s master’s program for social work. While an undergraduate at NSC, he interned with Clark County, serving as a counselor for at-risk middle- and high-school students.

He wants to use this time out of school to gain more social-work experience.

“Nepantla helps us identify who we are,” he said. “This program saved my life.”

Contact Danny Webster at or call 702-477-3834. Follow @DannyWebster21 on Twitter.

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