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Northeastern student reflects on meeting with President Obama

01/06/17 - BOSTON, MA. Malachi Hernandez SSH'21 poses for a portrait on Jan. 6, 2017. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

In spring 2016 Malachi Hernandez received a life-changing phone call from Northeastern, informing him that he had been accepted into the university’s Torch Scholars program for first-​​generation col­lege stu­dents with untapped potential.

“I cried out of joy and excitement,” recalls Hernandez, now a first-year political science major. “My mom was so excited that she dropped a gallon of milk on the stairs.”

Hernandez never dreamed that he would one day be studying at Northeastern, not even when he was passing through campus on his way to the William Blackstone Elementary School in Boston’s South End.

He grew up in the city’s Dorchester neighborhood, living in a low-income single parent household with four brothers. Success often seemed out of reach, he says, and his father moved to Puerto Rico when he was 7 to start a new life.

Hernandez was discouraged but not undaunted, determined to create change for his family and others living in urban communities.

When he was 16, he was named to Boston Mayor Marty Walsh’s Youth Council, which enables teens to play an active role in addressing issues facing the city’s young people. On just his second day in this prestigious position, he was asked to attend a meeting announcing Boston’s participation in President Barack Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative, a nationwide effort aimed at empowering boys and young men of color through education and job training.

The rest is history. Over the past two years, he’s become one of the leading voices for the initiative, rising to a member of the MBK Boston Advisory Board. Many of the local youth he has worked with have experienced significant improvements in their lives since he began offering his support, including better grades in school and good job opportunities at Boston City Hall.

“I never say ‘no’ to a young person,” he says. “I always try to help as much as I can.”

In December 2014, Hernandez delivered the keynote address at the MBK Boston Community Summit. In May 2015, he joined President Obama for a roundtable discussion at Lehman College in New York, where Obama announced the My Brother’s Keeper Alliance, an outgrowth of the then year-old initiative. And in December, he visited the White House to introduce the president himself at his administration’s final My Brother’s Keeper National Summit.

“Although my mother found a way to meet our needs time and time again, my father’s absence often made my four brothers and I feel like something was missing,” Hernandez explained in his introductory remarks. “MBK Boston helped me overcome struggles, graduate from high school, and become the first in my family to attend college.”

Hernandez’ to-do list includes studying abroad and doing a co-op in Washington, D.C., with an eye toward a career as a U.S. Senator. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

He said his 2015 meeting with Obama, in which the president described the difficulties of growing up without a father, inspired him to reconnect with his dad in Puerto Rico. He’s been calling him on Sundays and plans on seeing him in May for the first time in five years. “I’m really looking forward to it,” Hernandez notes. “When I told him I got into Northeastern, he was really proud of me.”

Obama, for his part, praised Hernandez and the other MBK student leaders in attendance at the national summit, noting that they were “proof that a little love, a little support allows them to achieve anything they can dream, anything they can conceive.”

Hernandez is a prime example. He excelled academically in his first semester at Northeastern, while diving headfirst into campus life. He’s an active member of the Black Student Association and an eager participant in the John D. O’Bryant African Amer­ican Institute’s Legacy Men­toring and Lead­er­ship Pro­gram, through which he is receiving guidance from graduate student Nathan Simms, MS’17.

“We talk about issues I faced at home and what I want to accomplish on campus,” says Hernandez of his relationship with Simms. “He is a true friend and a role model.”

His to-do list includes studying abroad and doing a co-op in Washington, with an eye toward a career as a U.S. senator. “I really want to be able to create change on a national level,” he says.

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