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Reach For The Stars - Astronaut Inspires Students
Seeking to give students a "sense of empowerment," NASA astronaut Jose Hernandez touched down in Riverbank on Friday morning, bringing a message of hope for the future. He spoke to a group that included the host Riverbank Language Academy students along with middle schoolers from Delhi, Livingston and Riverbank's Cardozo Middle School and some Riverbank High School students. Offering a gift of an RLA sweatshirt to the NASA astronaut in welcoming him to the Ray Fauria Gym on the RHS campus were RLA student body officers President Eli Vernon, an eighth grader, and sixth graders Mirabella Jones, vice president and Klarissa Valadez, speaker.

Kicking off the presentation with a video that interspersed photos of Hernandez as a youngster, working in the fields, up to college graduation and then later into training as an astronaut to his mission with the space shuttle Discovery, the French Camp native said the purpose was simple.

"The message is that we should not be afraid to dream," Hernandez said. "I was born and raised here in the Valley; I worked as a migrant farm worker."

His family followed the crops, he said, traveling each year from Mexico in February to start work in the fields in southern California, picking strawberries in Ontario. Then it was to Salinas for lettuce and sugar beets and the bulk of the year, about six months, was spent in the Modesto-Tracy-Stockton-Salida area picking cherries, cucumbers, green tomatoes, grapes and peaches until November.

And despite the family's frequent moves to follow the crops, Hernandez said his parents were always firm on one thing.

"They always made us do our homework," he said of attending school during the week and working in the fields on the weekends.

During summer vacation, he said, he and his siblings worked alongside their parents every day in the fields.

It wasn't until Hernandez was in second grade that a teacher in Stockton met with the family and urged them to stay in one place. Hernandez had asked for several months of homework, knowing they would be going back to Mexico soon. Instead, the teacher asked to come meet with his family.

"My teacher came and told my parents that we had to stay in one place," Hernandez said. "She told them 'kids are trees' and the roots need to start so they can grow tall and strong. My parents believed her and we made Stockton our home."

Hernandez learned to speak English fluently at 12 years old and said his career choice was made when he was watching the last mission of Apollo to the moon in 1972, mesmerized by Apollo 17.

"I saw the astronauts walking on the moon on TV," he said. "I went outside and saw the moon and thought ... wow, I want to be an astronaut."

Sharing that dream with his parents, he said they didn't laugh it off.

"My father, he looked at me and said 'I think you can'," Hernandez said.

It was then his dad gave him the recipe for success, a recipe that included five simple ingredients.

First, his father said, you have to decide what you want to be. Second, understand where you are now and how far you have to go to meet the goal. Third, draw yourself a road map of all the steps necessary to get there, and don't skip any steps along the way. Fourth, get an education and fifth, his father told him, use the same work ethic he had in the fields and apply it at school and once he graduated as he entered the workforce.

Hard work and education were the real keys, Hernandez said.

"I would add a sixth ingredient to my dad's recipe," he told the assembled students. "Perseverance. NASA told me 'No' 11 times. It wasn't until the 12th time I applied that I was accepted.

"Keep trying, don't give up."

With a short video clip of his mission to the International Space Station in 2008 also part of the presentation, Hernandez said he spent 14 days in space as part of the shuttle Discovery mission, STS 128, and was in the 19th class of astronauts to come through NASA, starting that training in 2004.

"We traveled 5.7 million miles," he said of the mission.

Along with working hard at getting an education, Hernandez said students today shouldn't accept barriers.

"We can have astronauts out of Riverbank very soon," he said, but cautioned the students that they have to believe in themselves. "We are our own worst enemy. But don't be afraid to dream. You guys are the future of our country, we're going to leave it in your hands and I want to make sure you are ready."