SantaLucia Hernandez ’13 used to get in trouble for talking out of turn: talking to her friends, to herself … anyone, really. She wasn’t a bad student; she just had a lot to say. Often, the fastest way to deal with a talkative pupil is a quick “quiet down.” Maybe detention. But in high school, Hernandez had a teacher who, instead of silencing her, invested in her. “Hey, I think that you’re bored in class and need a challenge,” her teacher said one day, and she invited Hernandez to join the school’s debate team. “I didn’t know what I was getting myself into at all,” Hernandez recalls. “I really liked her as a teacher, and she told me that I would travel a lot. So I was like, ‘Sign me up!’ ” For the next three years, Hernandez competed nationally in policy debate. Today, she is the one investing in students as head coach for Silicon Valley Urban Debate League, a nonprofit group that coaches low-income youth for national debate. One of Hernandez’s core beliefs is in the power of volunteering and giving back. While studying at UW–Madison, she helped to establish the UW’s chapter of Gamma Alpha Omega, a Latina-founded sorority rooted in community service. Hernandez is also the secretary of the Wisconsin Alumni Association’s newly reestablished Latinx Affinity Group, which held its first event in March 2021. Hernandez shares her journey with debate, how she went from student to teacher, and how it helped turn college from overwhelming to successful.
Why is high school debate so important?
It’s about empowering students. It’s empowering students in disadvantaged communities to really know that their voice matters and that their voice has the power to advocate for something. At the end of the day, they don’t just win [a debate]. That win is a confidence booster to say, “In this space, if I can compete and win, what other spaces will I be able to compete and win in?” I didn’t realize those things in high school. I was just trying to compete and win. It didn’t really happen until college, and I messaged my [debate] teacher and said, “Hey, thank you so much for not giving up on me.”
What was that moment like when you realized the impact debate had in your life?
I came from a big school. When I got to the UW campus, though, I looked around and saw that there were not students that looked like me. There were not many students that came from Chicago city, south side. And that really was a big culture shock for me. Where do I fit in? Where do I belong? Where can I fit in? Where can I belong? I just felt very overwhelmed with that whole experience, until I remembered back in high school when I got invited to be on the debate team. When I joined the debate team, I was feeling like, where do I belong? Where can I find a space so that I could be authentically me? It was those same experiences that I had in college when I first started. I kind of channeled some of those overwhelming feelings to push through it. [I realized] that I have to put in the work to belong. I am asking the right questions, professors are impressed, I’m writing papers, and I’m getting good grades. All of those were the skills that I learned in debate.
What do you love about coaching?
Helping students develop plans and goals for the season. “Hey, my goal is to win one round.” Right, okay. What are the steps we need to do to win that round? A lot of students have big dreams and things that they want, but they don’t have anybody to help them really break down the steps to be able to work to it. [I also love] connecting with the students. I have to constantly remind myself that the students are more than just debaters. They’re actual human beings with family issues and a lot of stressors, whether it’s schoolwork, whether it’s family obligations, whether it’s working to help provide. [I enjoy] creating a community and a space for the students to rely on one another, support one another, and say, “Hey, we got you in debate, but we also got you in life.”
If your students were asked, “What’s the one thing Ms. Hernandez is always saying,” what would it be?
“Teamwork makes the dream work.” I’m always saying that we could go far by ourselves, but we could really make some impact, we could go further with the team. So, it’s cool that you have your own goals, that you want to be able to do your own thing. But really, how are we doing it as a team? How are we helping one another? How are we talking to one another? How are we holding people accountable for the team? We need to work with each other as a team and create the space for the team to help others come in and feel like family and feel that [they] belong here.
You started the UW’s Gamma Alpha Omega chapter. What was it like to create that new space?
I remember when I was looking for spaces that I felt accepted in, that I felt authentically me in. I remember finding that in [academics], but I wanted an extracurricular activity. When I came across Gamma Alpha Omega, I [thought] this would be a great space. The whole purpose and a lot of what we do is around volunteering and around giving back to our community. It was a lot of work, a lot of paperwork, and I think a culture shift, as well. It takes a lot to establish something new, whether just the paperwork aspect or whether it’s convincing other people as well that we need new things. Once we started, there were a lot of other sororities and fraternities that felt empowered as well to say, “Hey, we want this chapter as well.” I was glad to have seen that, through us establishing a new chapter, it helped bring new organizations so that there’s more people that feel, “There’s a space for me here, too.”
What inspired you to take a leadership role in the Wisconsin Alumni Association’s Latinx Affinity Group?
I’ve been wanting to connect more with UW–Madison; I just didn’t know how because it didn’t seem there were any spaces there that I feel comfortable with latching onto. I had been thinking about wanting to network more. I was in that moment of “I want to give more, I want to do more, but I just don’t know how to do it.” And Pasha [Thao ’16, WAA engagement program specialist] said, “Hey, we want to start a new alumni group” specifically for Latinx alumni.
We want to create a space for other alumni to come in and create more programming so we can network. And when students do graduate, they can connect with alumni and know that the struggle after college is real, but we have a community to help you navigate through that. And I also get to connect with a lot of my friends from college and work on something with them.
What feels most exciting about the group’s future?
How fun it could be to be able to come together as a group and provide some real programming or real space to create community with one another. And I truly love to think through and work with like-minded [alumni] in that pursuit of wanting to continue to create spaces and create programming to help other alumni network and connect, as well as know that [they’re] not alone in that.
Why should alumni join the Latinx Affinity Group?
That overwhelming feeling that I and a lot of Latinos had when coming to UW–Madison and starting their journey as undergrads, of feeling like, “I don’t know if this is the place for me. I don’t know where I belong or where can I fit in” — it doesn’t end [at college], right? You graduate, and you have to be in a professional workspace, and you’re going to have that same sentiment. You need to be able to have a community that can have your back, that you’re able to network with.I love the fact that WAA has created these affinity groups. They brought them back to really help shine the light on a lot of those overwhelming feelings and [show] that there is a community out there.