As a young girl, Maria Eugenia Hernandez-Lane ’06 ‘08 had one mission in life: to go to school. However, she grew up in a poor family in the countryside of Colombia without essentials like electricity with her family struggling to meet their most basic needs, so Hernandez-Lane’s dream of education seemed like a hopeless prospect.
She was discouraged at every turn. She grew up hearing those around her say that university was not for poor people and that she’d never be able to get out of poverty. Her grandfather offered her a beacon of hope that she clung to, though. “He taught me that no matter how poor we were, we had our worth and could get anything in life,” she says.
His words guided her as she worked for years to secure a future for herself. Today, she’s using that same spirit to help other Latinos from disadvantaged backgrounds unleash their own potential and thrive.
Fighting for her education
When she was just 17, Hernandez-Lane decided she needed to take her future into her own hands. She and a friend moved from their small town to a coastal city where they could live with her friend’s brother and attend high school.
“I knew that I needed to study, I needed to go to college, I needed to work for everything I wanted to accomplish in life,” she says. “A no for me means yes you can.”
She worked odd jobs during the day to make ends meet and went to school in the evening. Though she often went to bed hungry, she never lost sight of her goal of attending college, and that was enough to keep her going. After earning her diploma, she continued to work, attending college every other semester so she could save up for tuition between courses.
Lifting herself out of poverty
When she finally earned her college degree at age 27, she had the qualifications to accept a leadership role at her next job.
“I was able to succeed,” she says. “I was a director at an organization, I was able to buy a house for my mom, I was able to help my sister to go to college and I could help my family.”
Bolstered by the outcome of her hard work, Hernandez-Lane returned to school to earn a post-graduate degree in marketing. She also met—and married—an American, and later the couple moved to the U.S. With two degrees in hand and an impressive resume in Colombia, she was disappointed to learn that her credentials didn’t mean much in her new home.
“I had worked so hard to get everything, and I was successful,” she recalls. “I knew I had to start over here, but I also knew I could do it, of that I was sure. The U.S. is the country of opportunity, and I knew I could do it here.”
Rebooting her career stateside
In Colombia, Hernandez-Lane had struggled with poverty and hunger. Here, she had new challenges to overcome, such as the language barrier and cultural differences. She dealt with them the only way she knew how: by turning to education.
First, though, she needed to learn English, which she did at UMGC. She also wanted to get back to work, and she went to temp agencies and asked to be placed in any position where she could use her bilingual skills while learning more about the American culture. She seized an opportunity to take an entry-level position at the National Council of La Raza.
She admits it was a struggle at times adjusting to her new circumstances. “I was a director in Colombia and had everybody working for me there, and here I was secretary to the secretary,” she notes.
Still, she felt humbled by the opportunity and felt compelled to give back to others. She decided to pursue two master’s degrees at UMGC – an MBA and a master’s in non-profit management. “The best decision I made was to get my master’s degrees at UMGC,” she says. “For me, education is the door that opens all opportunities.”
Once she earned her master’s in non-profit management, she was able to advance in her career until she was hired as an executive vice president at the National Hispanic Council on Aging.
“My MBA led to my promotion to vice president in charge of operations,” she says. “I trained local leaders on how to work in the community and advocate for their rights.”
Paying it forward to help others
After 11 years, she decided it was time to for another challenge, one that enabled her to give back to the community in a different way. She turned to higher education again to provide the skills she would need to achieve her goals.
“I [pursued] another master’s degree in psychology to learn about human behavior and development that could create change,” she explains.
In 2017, she earned her latest degree and launched Vision Yes, an organization dedicated to helping socially and economically disadvantaged communities discover and unleash their strengths. Through her consulting work and personal development workshops, she’s helping empower Latinos to identify skills that translate into viable work opportunities so they can support their families and make meaningful and positive contributions both to their communities and to society at large.
She’s hoping to be able to help people who are struggling to identity and achieve their potential, just as her grandfather’s encouraging words did for her many years ago.
“We are here on earth for we don’t know how long, and we have to make a positive change,” she insists. “We can bring out the best in everybody.”
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