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What I’ve Learned: Top-Rated College Professor Jonathan Hernandez

Frankie Leal

NAME: Jonathan Hernandez

AGE: 30

HERITAGE: Mexican-American

HOMETOWN: Selma, California

OCCUPATION/TITLE: Professor of Communication at California State University, Fresno and Bakersfield College.

Jonathan Hernandez, a communication professor from central California, recently gained national attention for being ranked fifth highest-rated university professor in the country during the 2014-2015 academic year on the instructor-ranking site RateMyProfessor.com. The site has collected over 16 million student ratings and the most recent installment of their "Annual Top Lists" report combined weighted professors' scores from this year and previous years to create their ranking.

Have you always had a special interest in education?

Absolutely, my parents Elizabeth and Emilio Hernandez were really the foundation, where I learned to value education. My mom is an educator in Selma and my father just recently retired after 40 years of teaching everything from elementary to middle school.

Did you start teaching at an early age?

I basically became involved in education in my home, but I started volunteering in classrooms and afterschool programs when I was 17. When I was an undergraduate at Fresno State I gradually started substitute teaching K-12 but I always felt I would find my niche in college.

So college was a given in your family. Was it super easy for you?

No! School was not easy for me, I had a lot of struggles. Even with substitute teaching - it took me several times to pass the test just to be able to sub, but I did it. I am very open with my students about this because I want them to know that if you get knocked down you have to keep going.

Grad school, too, was a challenge. I didn't get in at first, I had to go back for a year and a half to raise my GPA in hopes of doing better in the application process and that wasn't a guarantee. But I was adamant and driven to represent my family and my community in a positive manner so I did whatever it took to get that opportunity. I did reapply and I did get in, but I'm very open about what a struggle it was.

Now that you're in front of your own classes, what's the secret to your success?

It's a lot of treating students with the utmost respect and emphasizing that we are all one. I want students to feel that when we get into Mr. H's class, we're going to have a good time, learn and share experiences. The number one thing, the key, is acceptance. I tend to talk about my faults rather than my successes and let them know that it wasn't easy for me so I don't take anything for granted and then, they trust me.

What's the most important ingredient for being an effective teacher to the diverse student body you come into contact with?

I keep the same style throughout a term but I adjust to the class, I do different things, I'm not satisfied with doing the same old, same old. I get students from all walks of life - from students 15 years old to 68 year olds - and they have even more energy than I do! I look up to my students as much as they look up to me and I tell them "Just because I'm here teaching doesn't mean I ever stop learning from everyone, including you guys."

What do you tell students is the secret to their own success?

What I share with my students is that education is not just about them. This whole college experience isn't just about you, it has to do with your family, the people who have helped you become a better person get to here, it wasn't only your choice. And I tell them to think of the long haul, you're not going to be some overnight success - there will be hard work over many years and hopefully it will all be worth it. And if you don't get there, at least you tried.

What advice do you have for students to excel beyond school?

School and careers are so competitive. To go into any field good grades are not enough - it's a necessity of course, but it's also not just about smarts. If you can learn from your mistakes, that's the real intelligence. What I tell everyone is handle your business inside and outside the classroom - network, reach out to people in your field, go to talks, connect with professors and stay in contact with the people you meet.

Besides taking care of business in class and networking, I say focus on a career vs. a job. Focus on something that you love, something that when you're up there doing it, you give it everything you've got.

Esther J. Cepeda is a Chicago-based journalist and a nationally syndicated columnist for The Washington Post Writers Group. Follow her on Twitter, @estherjcepeda

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