Class of 2018
After her father’s deportation, Hostos alumna Denise Herrera and her mother were traumatized and struggling financially. Denise found empowerment, support, and healing through her education and involvement at Hostos Community College. After receiving her Associate of Arts in Liberal Arts from Hostos, she went on to obtain her Bachelor of Social Work from Hunter College. Now, while completing her master’s at Hunter, she is also helping families as a social work intern in the immigration unit at Brooklyn Defender Services and as a legal assistant at the Immigration Law Office of Christian Y. Alvarez. Denise is an impassioned leader who wants to use her education to fight for immigrant rights.
The following is an excerpt of an interview with Ms. Herrera conducted by Alumni Relations Manager Félix Sánchez. Responses have been edited for length and clarity.
Q & A
What makes you feel proud to be a Hostos graduate?
The diversity at Hostos is something I will always be thankful for. Not only in the student body, but amongst faculty members as well. I am a proud Hostos alumna also because the College is in the Boogie-down Bronx – a place that is highly stigmatized. I am also proud to be a community college graduate. People sometimes look down on community colleges, but going to a four-year college made me realize how blessed I had been at Hostos to have a community that was always concerned with my mental health and academic needs. Thanks to the workshops they offered at Hostos, I learned, among many things, how to apply for scholarships, and I am a recipient of The Eva Kastan Grove Scholarship for Immigrant Rights.
What experiences at Hostos helped to prepare you for your future success?
When I first entered Hostos I was emotional and financially unstable. In February 2016, my father was detained by ICE. After that he was incarcerated in federal prison and, ultimately, deported to Mexico. I enrolled in Hostos just a couple of months after that traumatic experience. From day one, Accelerated Studies in Associate Programs (ASAP) at Hostos helped me be successful academically. It was just my mother and me bringing in money for our household, and though I was working part-time at Forever 21, we were financially strained. Getting access to free tuition, textbooks, and transportation took off the financial burden and allowed me to focus solely on my academics.
I was accepted into the honors program, and that was also imperative to my college success. It broke me out of my shell. My mentor was Ernest Ialongo; he listened to me vent. We could talk about my mental health, and he truly helped me. Karina Castro and Cynthia Jones were also important role models. It was difficult being a student and also being the daughter of a deportee. Often times, it got in the way of my academics, but the honors program helped me to unpack a lot of my trauma. It became my sanctuary.
I also worked closely with Professor Ialongo through the Student Government Association (SGA), which is the third support group that affected my trajectory. The mentorship and experiences I gained through ASAP, the honors program, and SGA shaped me into the person I am today.
What challenges did you experience while studying at Hostos and how did you overcome them? How were you empowered by those experiences?
In my second semester at Hostos, I applied to SGA; in that time the President was Thierno Diallo, whom I looked up to very much. I became a senator and it introduced me to my biggest value: leadership. When Thierno was graduating, he approached me and told me he wanted me to run for president of SGA. I was scared and honored at the same time. I became the first Chicana to be elected as student government president.
I was very excited, but I didn’t know the challenges it was going to bring me. Being in charge of the student body was very difficult – you make friends, but you lose some, too. There are disagreements and misunderstandings, but at the end of the day it is a learning process. You learn the true definition of leadership. I learned that it is not about making people follow orders, it is about getting their input and giving your constituents a space to be heard. These experiences empowered me as a leader.
What is your career now, and how did you end up in your current position?
I currently work at Brooklyn Defender Services as a social work intern, supporting families dealing with immigration-related issues. Additionally, I work at the Immigration Law Office of Christian Y. Alvarez. It’s a funny story actually how I ended up there. When I transferred to Hunter, I was just taking classes and working at SCAN-Harbor in a drug treatment program. At Hostos, I was involved in everything; I was president, I attended Hostos SGA and university student senate meetings, and I volunteered. Since I was less involved, I began to feel incomplete at Hunter.
I felt moved to do social work and law after my experience with my dad’s deportation. So, I went online and began searching for immigration firms to intern with. I began sending out my resume in hopes that someone would answer. I was having no luck, until finally someone emailed back saying they needed an intern. It was Christian, who is now my boss. I went for an interview and I was so happy to meet a young, Mexican-American attorney. She took me in even though I didn’t have professional immigration law experience. I proved to her that I was willing to learn. I interned with her for six months before she hired me, and now I am her legal assistant.
Most of the cases I work with are for asylum-seekers, but I also work on domestic violence and U nonimmigrant status (U visa) cases, as well as other legal matters. I am very grateful for this opportunity; I am getting a jump start by learning immigration law in practice.
Who are you inspired by?
My mother is my inspiration. I like to look at her story from her point of view. It is about to be five years since her husband was deported. Her main source of income and emotional support was taken away. She had to take care of two children on her own as an undocumented woman in this country. I was 18 and my brother was 10 at the time; today I am 24 and he’s 16. My mom has proven to herself that she can move forward without letting the system break her. She also challenged cultural norms by continuing to survive without a man in the house. I believe my mom is revolutionary, and it inspires me to continue to be an independent woman.
What helps you keep moving forward?
Mi familia keeps me moving forward. My father’s story and other families’ stories that resonate with mine motivate me. My story proves that even though I was oppressed by family separation, my father raised me to value my education and to, “Seguir adelante!” My father’s deportation is just a fraction of what other families are going through currently! I choose to be a part of this system that hurt me so that I can make a real change, rather than resenting it.
What advice would you give a current student to help them be successful?
Join as many programs as you can because at a four-year college, you are just another student. You are on your own. Do as many internships as you can – they mold you and prepare you for the workforce. Appreciate and embrace the resources given to you. Have a strong relationship with faculty because you never know when you might need them in the future.