If graduation season is time to celebrate hard work and possibilities, Jomari Fernandez’s path to college showcases his unique determination and independence.
Last month, the 18-year-old from Pittsburg found himself without a ride to an important scholarship interview in Walnut Creek. So he hopped on his bike and pedaled to BART, arriving sweaty and out of breath.
His drive so impressed the panel of interviewers with the Diablo Valley Assistance League, that they awarded him the $5,000 scholarship, which will go toward his tuition at Sacramento State.
Many people might assume the scrappy move was typical of young people who struggle to plan in advance. But Fernandez isn’t a flakey teenager.
His mother is a home healthcare aide, doesn’t have a car, and works two jobs to support him and his three younger siblings. Usually he doesn’t even dare ask her or his step-father for rides because they work so much. He also asked his friends, but they wanted gas money and he had none.
Every penny counts at his house, so he’s applied for thousands of dollars in need- and merit-based scholarships.
“Even though it was a long essay, and I have lots of AP classes and it was close to the due date, I did it,” he said. He was excited but nervous to be chosen for the panel interview.
On the morning of the interview, Fernandez gave himself plenty of time. He did a Google search for the address and sketched a map on a piece of paper because he doesn’t have a smartphone. Then he biked from his school to the Pittsburg-Bay Point BART station, rode to Walnut Creek, and got terribly lost trying to find the delivery address.
“It was a hard ride because the Ygnacio Valley Road part was hilly. I was really sweaty and it was hecka hot,” he said.
He arrived dripping sweat in a tank top with his bike in tow and found the other students dressed up in their Sunday best.
“I was surprised because the boys were dressed professional and the girls were pretty in dresses and makeup. I didn’t know we were supposed to dress up. I was wearing a white tank top,” he said, sheepishly.
It was Fernandez’s first interview and he was nervous. English is his second language. He moved to Pittsburg from the Philippines less than four years ago.
“I couldn’t speak, complete straight sentences in English,” he said. “I think they felt pity for me.”
The panel asked him many questions, including what his biggest regret in high school is.
“I said, ‘Being rude to my mom.’ Because she needs to work every day and every night to provide for our needs and I wanted some time with her,” he said. “She gets mad at me because sometimes I’m lazy.”
Fernandez grew up in a poor neighborhood outside of Manila. When he was little, his mother moved to the U.S. to work and to escape his father, a taxi driver who drank away his wages. His grandmother raised him until his mother had enough money to sponsor her children in 2012.
He knew moving to California was a great opportunity, but he was sad to leave his school because he had a good chance of being valedictorian.
His mother didn’t come to the College-Bound Awards Ceremony at Pittsburg High School because she had to work.
“And when she’s not at work, she needs to rest. I understand because she only sleeps four hours a day,” he said. “I feel sad that she can’t come, but I keep it to myself because I don’t want her to feel bad about it.”
She’d would never say it out loud, but Fernandez knows his mother is proud of him. Sometimes he overhears her talking to his grandfather on the phone all the way from the Philippines. He grins just thinking about it.
“I don’t really care about the awards, I just want to make my mom happy,” he said. “I’m giving the best of my ability so someday I’ll be able to help her.”
That drive impressed the judges enough to award him the scholarship. Fernandez will study civil engineering at Sacramento State in September.