Alex Hernandez, now entering his second academic year as dean of the School of Continuing and Professional Studies, came to the University of Virginia from the Charter School Growth Fund, a national kindergarten-through-12th grade education foundation, where he led the nonprofit’s Innovative Schools practice.
His expertise is in scaling high-quality education programs that combine online and in-person instruction. The schools he supported send more than 10,000 students a year to college, most of whom are students of color and/or first-generation college students.
Hernandez launched his own education career through a continuing studies program, which allowed him to teach high school math in South Los Angeles.
UVA Today sat down with Hernandez to see where the School of Continuing and Professional Studies is headed.
Q. Why did you come to UVA?
A. My father is a first-generation college student. He transferred to a four-year school and he left after one semester. He eventually found a program that brought him back and trained him to become a teacher. He ended up with two master’s degrees. There are a lot of talented people who need a different path through higher education.
I am deeply committed to the mission of creating opportunity for others. My dad finished his education and it changed my life and it changed my children’s lives. We need to reboot the American dream, and I can’t think of a better place to do that than at Mr. Jefferson’s University.
Q. What skills and talents are you bringing to the School of Continuing and Professional Studies, specifically?
A. I am a non-traditional leader. I spent most of my career in kindergarten-through-12th grade education, where I focused on growing innovative education programs that help students get to and through college.
Today, adult learners are driving a lot of the innovation in higher education, and continuing education is the tip of the spear. Working adults want flexible, high-quality, powerful programs. They are pushing us to move our programs online. They are forcing us to rethink how we advance their careers – to land a new job, earn a promotion or switch fields. They are helping us focus on affordability because they reach into their own pockets to pay for their education.
Q. How has the School of Continuing and Professional Studies changed over the past year?
A. SCPS can do more for the commonwealth. We want to grow our programs significantly over the next few years, starting by doubling the size of our bachelor’s degree programs for working adults.
Sixty percent of Virginians haven’t finished college, but, when you look further, 75% of African Americans, 75% of Latinx adults, 80% of adults from Southwest Virginia don’t have their degrees. They are shut out from even applying for jobs that require a four-year college degree. We can do more for these Virginians.
We also want to help people advance their careers. We have professional certificates that range from accounting to cybersecurity to project management. And we are looking for new ways to build ladders to opportunity.
Over the past year, we invested in the foundation for growth. We upgraded our digital classrooms, we modernized how we reach out to students, and we made our programs more accessible.
Q. Beyond that, what other changes are you planning?
A. Continuing education is always changing, evolving. There are 120 million people worldwide who will have to be retrained in the next three years because of automation. We need to partner with employers and explore new types of programs to meet their needs.
As jobs are getting automated or influenced by technology, soft skills – such as communication, the ability to work in virtual teams and providing ethical leadership – are becoming more important. Soft skills are learned through a liberal arts education, and I think UVA has a major contribution to make in this area.
Q. How is the SCPS part of the 2030 strategic plan?
A. SCPS helps make UVA “synonymous with service” by reaching beyond Grounds and serving the public. One of 10 key initiatives in the strategic plan is to increase educational opportunities for working adults in the commonwealth. We are especially focused on the 1.1 million Virginians who have some college credit, but no degree.
Helping working adults finish their college education is critical to the commonwealth meeting its goal of becoming the best-educated state by 2030. I believe this initiative, and our role in it, is an important part of what it means to be a public institution.
Q. Have you met memorable students?
A. Every one of our adult learners has an incredible story.
I recently had dinner with Tori Hobgood, who graduated from our Bachelor of Interdisciplinary Studies program. She came back to school while launching a defense contracting company with her husband and raising a family. In the defense contracting industry, credentials matter. She is this amazing entrepreneur who has a lot to give to the world.
The day I joined UVA, I was on-boarded by Jody Knowles, who works in Human Resources. She came back to school after 30 years and finished her degree. I really admire the work she does to bring new employees into the UVA family.
I recently encountered a student, Tom Nielsen, in our accounting certificate program. Tom is a Marine Corps veteran who served in Afghanistan. He fell in love with teaching as an instructor for the 1st Marine Division, and went on to teach middle school after the military. He is now completing a professional certificate to prepare for the next chapter of his career.
Q. What have you learned in all of this?
A. Today the “average” college student works full-time, cares for family members, has life happening all around them. They need programs that meet their needs.
I know we have done our job when we help students develop valuable skills and they fall in love with the liberal arts – with learning – all over again. That is the magic of SCPS. When we are at our best, we change lives.