Maria (Rojas '07) Fernandez, M.Ed. '09

Maria Fernandez

Bachelor's in business administration 
and master's in higher education

Formative moment

You never forget seeing your mother cry. Maria (Rojas) Fernandez certainly hasn't.

She was 10, her family was eating at a Dallas-area fast-food chain, and she accidentally spilled her juice. The cashier reacted with derogatory comments about the family's race.

Maria didn't quite understand, but her mother made sure she learned a lesson from the potentially searing moment. The family left without their food; once outside, her mother knelt in front of her and looked her in the eye.

"It was the only time I ever saw my mother cry," Maria said. "She said, 'Don’t ever let anyone make you feel like you're not special. You go as far as you want.'"

That lesson motivates Maria to this day, as she prepares for law school after recently graduating from ACU with a master's degree in higher education. After six years in Abilene - a city she didn't know existed before visiting the campus - Maria said ACU has prepared her to pass that vital lesson on to students of all races:

Don't give up. Go as far as you want.

"I feel like ACU brought out my personal talents - leadership and service," Maria said. "There was a service-oriented culture here, a leadership-oriented culture. At another place, I could have been at a loss."


Where she was supposed to be

Maria Rojas was set on attending a large, four-year university in the Dallas area, where she had lived her whole life, but a series of obstacles impeded her path to registration - most striking, a computer failure five minutes before she arrived on the last possible day to register for classes the next fall.

Maria Fernandez

That was enough for Maria, who told her mother, "I'm not supposed to go here."

A car wreck had shaken her, forcing her focus back to God, who was pointing her to a West Texas university she had never heard of in a city she didn't know.

In her entire extended family, no one had gone to college before Maria enrolled at ACU. Even that step would not have been possible without a series of scholarships - Women for ACU, Lynay, Pope Fellows, Trustee and the W.R. and Mayme C. Smith Endowed Scholarship.

"That's what helped me be at ACU, for sure," she said.

A business administration major, Maria thrived in ACU's unique culture, which prizes service as an essential component of Christian leadership.

Like many students, she met friends for life - including the man who is now her husband - and was amazed by the warmth and attention given by the faculty.

"This gets said so often: 'You're not a number, not just another student,'" she said. "You're not."


'I hope to make them proud'

Without the "blind stewardship" of donors who funded her scholarships, Maria said she would likely have been lost in the crowd at a big state school.

Those donors gave without knowing who would receive their gifts, an attribute she compared to the gift Jesus offers to everyone.

"There are no stereotypes to their giving," she said. "There is no partiality. Jesus never had favorites. He takes everyone. He accepts all. That has impacted my life personally, and I hope to make them proud."

In the Pope Fellows program, Maria grew in her love for public policy and the changes she as a Christian could effect. Immediately after graduation in 2007, Maria enrolled in ACU's master's of higher education program, focusing on public policy.

After a summer internship in Washington, during which she helped draft legislative language, Maria was sold: She would go to law school with plans to go to Washington and use her expertise to make it easier for students to obtain a higher education.

It all goes back to that moment in a restaurant parking lot, emphasized by a conversation with her younger brother, who was expressing doubts about his education despite good grades.

"You're the exception," he told Maria. "God made an exception for you." What hope did he have of following in her footsteps?

Maria shook her head, her mother's admonition a constant reminder.

Don't give up. Go as far as you want.

"I want to help that not to be the mindset of minority students - or any student," she said. "That other person, maybe his classmate, they're the exception - no. I want to help everyone understand that everyone is the exception."

 

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