Jaylene Hernandez: Pursuing Her Dream and Finding Her Passion

Quick Take. With few opportunities in her hometown, Jaylene Hernandez moved to Tucson, AZ with her entire family where she attended Pima Community College and worked part-time. She hoped to transfer to a four-year institution but soon realized that the cost was prohibitive. Not sure of her next steps, Jaylene visited the Youth Employment Center, where she received training, earned an internship, and was eventually hired to work with young people seeking to earn their GEDs.

Jaylene Hernandez grew up in Nogales, Arizona, a border town about an hour south of Tucson. “When you grow up in Nogales, Arizona,” Jaylene says, “you also grow in Nogales, Sonora” (the neighboring town in Mexico). That’s because many adults and even school-age children cross daily from Mexico for better jobs and education.

“Unfortunately,” she says, “over the years it has turned into a bit of a ghost town. As a result, for most of us there’s not much opportunity. There were lots of elementary schools but only two high schools with limited offerings and little access to postsecondary education.” And it was often necessary to go to Phoenix or Flagstaff for any kind of specialized healthcare and other needed services.

From a cultural standpoint, Jaylene enjoyed the community, but “growing and learning there was difficult,” she says. Pursuing education was made more challenging because Jaylene’s mother wasn’t in a position to offer much help. “I think she didn’t finish middle school and really didn’t know how to support me educationally,” Jaylene recalls. “I had one middle school teacher who was pushing me to think about college, but I was like, ‘OK, but I don’t even know how to apply for the classes I’m supposed to take next year, so how can I think about postsecondary options?’”

The arts were always her passion. “I used to love art, drawing, dance—anything in the arts field,” Jaylene recalls. “And when I got to high school, I took a big interest in fashion design. But there just wasn’t much opportunity for arts in Nogales unless you knew the right people, and if you had the money to afford it you could do those kinds of extracurricular activities. But whenever the budget got tight, theater and other kinds of performing arts were the first things to be cut. I did have some amazing teachers but there was only so much they could do.

Jaylene graduated from high school in 2017 and, although she had little guidance regarding postsecondary education, managed to do her own research and decided to move to Tucson to attend Pima Community College. Her family, including her grandmother and aunt, all moved with her. “It was hard,” Jaylene remembers. “Everybody wanted to stay back. But I wanted to pursue fashion design and knew that I’d have to move in order to do that.”

“My grandmother misses Nogales,” she says, “and I miss the food big-time!” Her brother, nine-years younger than she, also moved with the family. “I tell him—come on! Go for IT or STEM—you can do those things now that you’re in Tucson!”

Jaylene was able to complete all of her basic coursework at Pima CC and received her associate degree in liberal arts. During her three years at the community college, she also worked part-time at Sally Beauty, a salon with several branches in Tucson. Initially, she was excited about the possibility of putting her interest in fashion design together with hair, makeup, skin care, and other aspects of the salon’s services. But soon she became more interested in the business aspects of the company. “My first manager at Sally’s taught me everything I needed to know about both the front and back of the store, and I also picked up some of her management duties. And when she left, I continued to perform those duties for about six months.”

Jaylene’s original plan was to complete her AA at Pima focusing on fashion design and then transfer to a four-year institution while continuing to work to support herself. But she soon learned that tuition and fees were far more than the financial aid she could access. “I was going to transfer to the university,” she says, “but I didn’t have $20k for even a single year. Student loans were never an option due to high interested rates, and low wages made it impossible to pay them back. I had applied for scholarships since I was junior in high school but was never chosen as a recipient.” Finally, she received a small award, but it was nowhere near enough to make attendance possible.

Unsure of where to turn, Jaylene traveled to the adult one-stop center. After checking in, she found out that there was actually a Youth Employment Center for older youth and young adults. “Of course, it was on the other side of town,” Jaylene recalls. “But when I arrived there, I did an introduction with an intake specialist, and she really laid it out for me in terms of what kinds of trainings they could offer me and what it would take to succeed.”

Unfortunately, Jaylene initially failed to qualify for WIOA support because she was working too much at the salon, but when she later was deemed eligible for SNAP benefits, she was able to be served at the Youth Employment Center. She met with her case manager and explained that she’d been working at the salon but was looking for something more. After reviewing available training options, Jaylene chose a short-term certificate program in accounting and payroll, a WIOA-funded training offered by Images Enterprises, an organization that offers a variety of occupational credentials. “Trade schools are great,” Jaylene says, “since you can earn a marketable credential in a much shorter period of time and the skills are always needed.”

Around the same time, Jaylene decided to leave the salon, applied for a summer internship at the Youth Employment Center, and was accepted. “We managed onboarding, creating files, looking for alternative placements,” she explains, “all the while inputting everything on the computer. I would never have gotten this far without the youth coordinator, Maria. She taught me everything I needed to know. I’ll forever be grateful to her. She taught me, step-by-step—what she wanted and when she wanted it. I was like, ‘yes! The more detail the better!’”

Chula Robertson, Youth Program Coordinator at the Pima County Department of Community and Workforce Development, recalls Jaylene’s energy and obvious talent. “Jaylene started our program as a WIOA participant,” she says, “and helped with onboarding almost 1000 kids into our summer youth program. She completed a training and then started a paid work experience program working in our office. She quickly learned our entire process and helped us think outside the box. Then our office had an opening and she applied. She did an awesome job with the hiring process and secured the position.”

Today Jaylene has a full-time position as a case manager with the Youth Employment Center, focusing on WIOA-eligible out-of-school youth and young adults who need to complete their GEDs. “I’m not doing as much financial work as I’d hoped but there’s a lot of work with vouchers for clients,” she says. “And there’s constant communication with schools, advisors, and contractors to get all the information and evidence we need to be all the required information is in place for the funding so we can serve these children—cost breakdowns, where we can refer them for additional funding, resume writing, job fairs, and lots and lots of communications and outreach.”

For now, Jaylene is happy to enjoy the moment. “I love my co-workers,” she says, “and I appreciate the stable 9-5 schedule after three years at the salon. And I love working with the young people—I have a good sense of what they need, and I feel like they respond well to me since we’re so close together in age.” But even the small age difference can cause confusion. “Sometimes I’ll tell a joke and it falls flat or they’ll give me some Gen Z expressions and I’ll have to say, ‘what does that even mean!?’ They come up with all sorts of stuff but for the most part we get along really well.”

Thinking about how best to advocate with policy makers for the young people she works with, Jaylene is crystal clear. “I would bring some of my success stories,” she says. “For example, I have a young man who was homeless but got his GED and did training and now is doing IT and has a family. He won’t let anything stop him. And there are so many other stories like that to tell. Do you think our stipends are enough to support what they’re trying to do? Of course not! We need funding. Provide more funding!”

Ms. Robertson is justly proud of Jaylene’s accomplishments. “Jaylene cares about every youth that walks through our door,” she says, “and is always eager to help with additional programs. She is creative, thoughtful, and committed to helping others.”

Thinking about the future, Jaylene says, “from here on I am just trying to grow. I want to expand into auditing and finance. Managing payroll is my ultimate goal but I know it will take a few jobs and some additional steps. So, I’d love to go into a federal agency or the county and do that finance, that payroll, that accounting.”

She’s also hoping to move into her own place, but circumstances haven’t allowed for it yet, so she continues to live with her family. “First it was COVID and now it’s the high cost of everything. It’s a good thing we all like each other!” she says.

Reflecting on individuals who have had major influences in her life, Jaylene is grateful to her mom, “who supported me while I tried to figure out my path, choosing between my dreams and a career,” and her Aunt Ana, “who was the voice of reason in our whole family.” She also credits her cat, Conchi, who has been with her “on the darkest days, purring at my side and urging me to keep going. I work hard so my cats can have a better life since they’re always here for me.”

Finally, Jaylene recalls her grandmother who, as it turns out, was an accountant. “When I first got interested in fashion design and was talking all about my plans, she would say, ‘think about business.’ But I was like—I want to be a fashion designer, an artist! But once I had some experience working in the real world, I began to understand what she meant.”

Concluding the conversation, Jaylene reflected on the value of her training at the Youth Employment Center. “It helped me grow … learn and grow. Now, I’m excited to work with all the new people and to create new programs, new funding, and new outcomes for young people.”