It wasn’t an extraordinary teacher who inspired Maria Hernandez to become an educator. In fact, it was the opposite.
“When I was younger, I remember being in a class where I felt confused all the time,” said Hernandez, a student in the Graduate School of Education (GSOE) at the University of California, Riverside. “It was one of those moments where I realized I wanted to help people not to be in my position; I wanted to make other students comfortable enough to ask questions.”
Raised in Corona, Hernandez attended Riverside’s Ramona High School before earning a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Cal Poly Pomona. She then enrolled in the GSOE’s one-year master of general education program, which also will see her receive a single-subject teaching credential in math when she completes the program in June.
As part of her master’s curriculum, Hernandez for the past four months has returned to her alma mater of Ramona High on a near-daily basis to student-teach math to a group of mostly ninth graders. And now, having been named the inaugural recipient of a new scholarship co-launched by UCR and Riverside Unified School District (RUSD), she’ll get to continue teaching in her hometown for up to five years after she completes her degree.
The UCR-RUSD Pipeline Scholarship fund was created to address the worrisome shortage of teachers in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math, or STEM, said RUSD board member Kathy Allavie, who conceived of the award with her husband, John.
“This isn’t an issue that’s unique to Riverside,” Allavie explained of the shortage. “It’s a national problem: Nobody has enough science and math teachers. I had the idea that if we could build some kind of pipeline from UCR’s Graduate School of Education into RUSD, it could be a clever way to help us get some of the teachers we really need — and a way for us to better support those teachers by creating a direct pathway into some of their first jobs.”
To compete for the annual scholarship, applicants must be students in the GSOE’s teacher education track, be working toward a specialized credential in a STEM subject, and be willing to fulfill their student-teaching requirement in one of RUSD’s schools. In addition to providing tuition support, the scholarship will offer a guaranteed interview for a teaching position with RUSD to its recipient, who, if offered the position, must commit to remaining within the RUSD system for three to five years.
“Students across the U.S. are underperforming in STEM subjects,” said GSOE Dean Thomas Smith. “This scholarship will help support the development of highly qualified K-12 STEM teachers to create the most promising and effective STEM professionals of the future.”
Allavie likened the fund to a bridge between the university and the surrounding community, in a similar vein as RUSD’s high-ranking STEM Academy. Founded in fall 2011, the school serves students in grades five through eight, and in recent years has introduced those students to UCR-affiliated guest speakers and graduate students who double as tutors.
“RUSD’s primary goal is to get our kids as highly educated as we can, and we’re lucky to have a university on our doorstep,” Allavie said. “If we’re not developing a lot of interconnections between RUSD and UCR, then we’re missing the boat — it just makes perfect sense.”
In that spirit of collaboration, members of the GSOE’s Teacher Education Committee and one RUSD representative formed a nine-person scholarship interview panel. During a final screening session, Hernandez answered 12 questions on topics including her strengths as a candidate, teaching strategies, data analysis, and how she'd implement technology in her classroom.
“Maria demonstrated her passion for teaching mathematics, her commitment to engaging and supporting students, and her love for Riverside Unified,” said JerMara C. Davis-Welch, GSOE assistant dean and director of teacher education, of Hernandez’s selection as the scholarship’s 2018 recipient.
For Hernandez, who has worked with high schoolers as a math and college prep tutor since graduating from Ramona High herself, learning to communicate with and engage her teenage students are skills she’s honed over time.
“You have to make it exciting, because they do tend to get tired of being in the same class for up to two hours at a time,” she said. “I've learned that I have to make my students move as much as possible, whether it's to take a quick break or by doing stations, which is when they move around the room and do different activities for five minutes each."
She also credited new types of technology — some as simple as desks that have white boards built into them for solving equations — for enriching students' learning experiences.
“The Riverside community watched me grow up; everything I know came from here, so receiving the scholarship is really an opportunity to give back to the place that helped me get to where I am now,” she said. “It’s also a way for me to get my foot in the door and get more support from the district because I do want to stay here in RUSD.”
Allavie, who described Hernandez as “just the type of person I had in mind when we were thinking up this fund,” added that she hopes the scholarship entices more local students to remain in the area even after leaving college.
“We’d like to have a lot more RUSD students access UCR as their choice of university,” she said. “In the Inland Empire area specifically, it’s been shown that when people go to college here, there’s almost a 70 percent likelihood that they’ll choose to stay after graduating.
“It’s very important to us that we try to keep our smartest kids in Riverside, to learn and work and invest in the local community. It makes the community better, and it really makes a case for strengthening the lines of communication between UCR and RUSD.”