By Doug McPherson
Any college student who has experienced homelessness knows that libraries are amazing gifts.
Rebecca Leyva Hernandez, 22, learned this in fall 2017 when the landlord of the home her family rented decided to sell it. The market was hot, and the house sold in a week – just before the holidays. For five months, the family bounced between family members’ homes.
But the period of strife had a surprising impact the Metropolitan State University of Denver student: “I became more focused,” said Leyva Hernandez, a first-generation college student who will graduate Friday with a degree in health care management and a 4.0 grade-point average. “I stayed late hours in the library because I didn’t know where to go to after class. I had no home.”
In fact, Leyva Hernandez could have phrased it, “I had no home, again.” This wasn’t the first time her family had experienced homelessness.
When she was 9, her family lost the home in which she grew up after her grandmother died and her family was required to take an extended stay in Mexico for the funeral and to attend to her grandmother’s estate.
When her family returned to Denver, they lived in a one-bed motel room for a month before landing on their feet. Even at that young age, Leyva Hernandez saw a silver lining in the experience: gratitude for what she did have.
“It wasn’t our house that was important but my family’s safety and security,” she recalled. “As long as we had each other, we were always OK.”
That optimism would be put to the test at age 18, when she was hospitalized with meningitis. Leyva Hernandez found herself mostly alone in the hospital because her family couldn’t afford to take off work.
“There came a point in my life where I thought nothing was going to get better,” she said of that experience. “It was like my family and I would take one step forward and 10 steps back.”
In the hospital with her hope waning, she reflected on her life. In recalling that time, Leyva Hernandez again sounds much wiser than her 22 years: “As humans, we will always encounter obstacles. There are always people struggling to find something to eat or a place to call theirs.”
Leyva Hernandez realized her biggest obstacle wasn’t homelessness or illness. It was herself. “I didn’t believe enough in myself,” she said, “because I felt as though no one really believed in me either, and that’s the most dangerous feeling to have.”
Her self-reflection proved life-changing. “I reflected on my life and the person I (was),” she said. “That’s how I overcame my biggest obstacle. I had to believe in myself to help people. It ignited a fire of passion, and I couldn’t let it go out.”
Leyva Hernandez dedicated herself to college and her newfound career goal to help others. She started by volunteering with MSU Denver’s Backpacks to Briefcases program, and that soon built into a full-fledged life of philanthropy. As a member of the National Society for Leadership and Success she volunteered in schools in impoverished Costa Rican communities and she volunteers at Denver’s Thomas Jefferson High School, mentoring students at risk of dropping out.
She thrived academically as well. Leyva Hernandez was one of two Colorado students to earn the Dante Alighieri Society of Denver scholarship to study health care systems in Florence, Italy; she was on a team of MSU Denver Health Care Management students to compete in the Medical University of South Carolina’s first competition for health administration programs; and she earned rave reviews for her senior thesis examining long-term care for LGBTQ seniors in Colorado.
Thinking about her postgraduation future, Leyva Hernandez said she hopes her degree might someday help her to help others who have felt the same way she has during low points. “I’m sure there are many out there like me, struggling to understand the obstacles in their lives, but this too shall pass,” said Leyva Hernandez, who plans to go abroad and study public health.
“Times were tough, but I never quit,” she said. “Now I know I was put here to do good and help others. I’ve learned to be a person for others.”
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