Graduate Valeria Hernandez: After lupus diagnosis, first-gen LJ Scholar fought back to finish her education

Valeria poses in graduation gown

Valeria Hernandez calls the U.S. home thanks to her parents who migrated from Mexico with nothing but the clothes on their backs in hopes of giving their daughter a better life. To them, that meant providing her an education, something neither of them received.

From the time she started at the age of 3, Hernandez loved school. She made the honor roll every report card and was always involved in extracurricular activities, whether that was helping in the school office or playing sports. She was convinced she wanted to be a teacher. That is, until fourth grade career week.

“There, I met with investigators and FBI agents and was so intrigued with the work they do,” she said. “From then on, I knew I wanted to be in the criminal justice field.”

With her sights set on being an investigator, she knew she had her work cut out for her.

Valeria poses with friends at NAUWhen the opportunity to tour Northern Arizona University was offered to her freshman class, she jumped at the chance—not because she was excited about the possibility of attending NAU, but because she would finally get to see snow.

“That day, I fell in love with NAU and knew it’s where I wanted to pursue my education,” she said. “After my visit, I immediately met with my counselor to find out about scholarships and what I needed to do to ensure I could get in.”

She learned about the Lumberjack Scholarship, and for the remainder of high school, she did everything she could to secure it, which meant completing 16 college preparatory core courses and receiving a minimum 3.5 high school GPA, with no letter grade lower than “B.” Her hard work paid off. She was named a Lumberjack Scholar, which covers 100 percent of tuition. She enrolled as a double major, studying criminal justice and sociology, with a minor in psychology.

Everything was going according to plan. Then, Hernandez got sick.

Valeria in hospital.Throughout her entire freshman year, she was in and out of the hospital, and no one knew why. She was misdiagnosed more than once, her organs were failing and she was losing weight faster than she could put it on. At her lowest, she weighed 75 pounds. After being intubated for a week while the doctors frantically worked to figure out what was wrong, she was finally diagnosed with lupus—an autoimmune disease that occurs when the body’s immune system attacks its own tissues and organs. Now that they knew the problem, they could work to find a solution.

Hernandez started gaining weight and began physical therapy to build back her strength, all while continuing her NAU education online. As soon as she was able to walk on her own, she went back to work.

“I have always said ‘if you really want it, go get it.’ I got my education, I recovered fully and I am physically doing better than ever before. I persevered and pushed through all the challenges. My education has always been my priority, but now, so is my health.”

Hernandez is an intern investigator at the Coconino County Public Defender’s Office. After graduation later this month, she plans to get her paralegal certification and pursue an interpreter certification, but not before taking some time for herself. Without homework to bog her down for the first time in her life, she plans to spend a month traveling Mexico to learn about her heritage.

“To me, receiving an education is so important because my parents sacrificed everything so I could have this opportunity. They came to this country so I could have a better future. Because of them, I will do everything I can to make sure I make a difference, whether that be in a single person’s life or my entire community, state or nation. I intend to help others, make my parents proud and prove that immigrants can come here and create a better life.”

Northern Arizona University LogoCarly Banks | NAU Communications
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NAU Communications