Changing the narrative for Indigenous youth

Human and Social Development

- Megan Lowry

Santanna Hernandez and her family on a trip in 2017.

A UVic distance student aims to change what Indigenous youth think about post-secondary education

"As an Indigenous student, no one asked what university I planned to attend or even if I was interested in post-secondary," says Santanna Hernandez.

Now a mother of four, Hernandez will graduate from the University of Victoria in June 2019 and is currently applying to medical schools.

"I want to change the narrative my children hear," Hernandez explains. "I want them to know they can do anything they put their mind to."

Hernandez's path to university was full of twists and turns—much like the Columbia River cutting through her hometown of Trail, BC. After high school, she received her flight attendant diploma. "Most everyone I knew was getting jobs as servers," she says of her peers. Career-wise, she "wanted to do something different."

But when she met her husband and her eldest daughter was born, she switched her focus to being a mom. Hernandez and her husband soon welcomed two more daughters and a son to their family.

Career-changing inspiration

After her youngest daughter was born, Hernandez's life took another unexpected turn.

With four young kids, she started to spend a lot of time in the doctor's office. During one visit, her children’s pediatrician, Dr. Henry Ukpeh, suggested she go back to school.

"Dr. Ukpeh said he thought I'd make a good physician," Hernandez recalls with a laugh. "I thought he was a tad crazy at first, but I couldn’t get the idea out of my mind."

In 2014, Hernandez enrolled in Selkirk College's pre-med program. After two years there, she transferred to UVic to pursue a Bachelor of Social Work with an Indigenous specialization.

At UVic, I'm learning from inspiring educators and Indigenous scholars. My goal is to use my experiences and what I've learned to bridge western medicine with some of the traditional medicinal practices that we see in Indigenous communities.
—UVic social work student Santanna Hernandez

Paying it forward

As a distance student, Hernandez is able to live in Trail with her family while completing her degree. She balances a full-time class schedule with shuttling kids to activities and working at her local hospital as a Patient Voices Network volunteer.

"I just take it each day at a time," she explains. "It motivates me knowing my successes will be my community's successes."

Through her advocacy work, Hernandez was awarded the Anthany Dawson Award for Indigenous students pursuing degrees connected with social justice.

"I know I will be able to bring many teachings to my classmates around social justice and the way allied health professionals can work together for the betterment of patients," Hernandez says.

Without support from scholarships and bursaries, Hernandez says the added expenses of going back to school would have been too much for her family. "I didn’t want my kids to go without for me to go to school," Hernandez explains.

So, to pay forward the generosity she's seen from donors, Hernandez is mentoring Indigenous high school students on how to find financial support for their own post-secondary journeys.

"They shouldn’t have to choose between a roof over their head and attending university," she says. "I hope sharing my story helps break down some of the barriers indigenous students face and inspires them to see their potential."


In this story

Keywords: Indigenous, social work, youth, award, student life

People: Santanna Hernandez

Publication: The Ring

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