When Ed Hernandez was twelve, his family packed up and left Mexico for California’s greener pastures. Upon arriving in the United States, Ed had a checklist of tasks to cross off in order to be successful. He needed to learn English. He needed to go to high school, then college. And then he needed to get a job, and it needed to pay well. Ed completed all tasks, becoming the first person in his family to graduate from high school and college. He majored in electrical and computer engineering and got a nicely salaried job in technical sales for a company that sold semiconductors. He did that for 13 years until he realized it wasn’t what he wanted to do. And that’s when he made the choice to become a teacher.
I met Ed Hernandez at Lemelson-MIT’s EurekaFest, where he was being honored as a Master Teacher. He told me the bullet points of his story, how he left a well-paying but unfulfilling job to become a high school teacher, how he teaches his students to use SOLIDWORKS and be self-sufficient, how his program at Tustin High School has had some major success stories. I had the chance to talk to Ed on the phone and delve deeper into his story.
It starts with his father. “If you were to speak with him in his native language about anything, you wouldn’t think he wasn’t educated,” Ed said. His father was a voracious reader, but was forced to leave school when he was young to help his family. After crashing into lack-of-education barriers that prevented him from rising in his industry, Ed’s father made it his mission to secure his children’s futures by pursuing higher education. “We were always pushed towards excelling in school, even if my father didn’t really have a good idea of what lay beyond high school. He made sure that we were in a position to take advantage of opportunities,” Ed explained. As one of thousands of Mexican immigrants in Southern California, no one at Ed’s school placed too many expectations to succeed on him. When he was a freshman, he asked a counselor what it would take to attend UCLA. Dismissively, he was told to get straight A’s if he wanted to get into college. It wasn’t until he was a senior that the same counselor realized he was, in fact, a straight A student who took all the required college prep courses.
Ed was accepted to UCLA and ultimately attended UC Irvine as an Electrical & Computer Engineering major, becoming the first person in his family to graduate from high school, get into, and subsequently graduate from college. After seeing what Ed could accomplish, his two younger sisters were given more support by their high school and both women ended up being recruited by Ivy League schools, with one going to Brown University and the other to Smith College. Both sisters went to college on full rides, walking along the path Ed made for them.
Ed majored in engineering for a few reasons: first, a refrain familiar to most engineers, he was always curious about how things worked, and second, culture. “I think culturally in some Asian countries and in South America for sure, the engineering field carries a bit of…I don’t want to say prestige, but maybe there’s a title associated with it,” he told me. “I just got it into my head, I’m going to pursue engineering. I didn’t really have much exposure to what that was realistically in high school, so it wasn’t until college that I realized, oh my God, there’s a bunch of math and science associated with this. Eventually I got some hands on experience.”
He admits to being woefully unprepared—as the first person in his family to graduate from high school, let alone go to college, he hadn’t had much exposure to the work ethic, study habits, and teamwork dynamics needed to excel in college. In fact, Ed was quickly placed on academic probation during his first year at UC Irvine. Through hard work and determination, he managed to improve his grades and learned how to navigate the wilderness of collegiate life. “It’s something I take back to [my teaching] and try to prepare students as much as possible for what many are going to see as an eye opening experience,” Ed said.
Post-college, Ed faced what many of his Millennial and Generation Z students were and are faced with today: a recession. Dreams of designing circuits were dashed, and Ed ended up landing a slick job selling semiconductors. “I got hired by a company that was interested in hiring an electrical engineering major on the sales side of things to translate ‘nerd,’” he said with a chuckle. “It was, ‘Hey, you speak nerd, we need to interact with the engineers and be able to see what they need for designs, then communicate back with corporate’ and so on.” He began as an Applications Engineer and, upon seeing the kind of cars the sales guys drove, moved into technical sales. For 13 years, Ed worked as a translator of nerd-speak, one of the earlier pioneers in the now booming technical sales and sales engineering fields.
And then, after a decade of doing this, Ed started to think about how much he loved knowing how things are put together, not selling them. He realized that the one day he really looked forward to every month was payday—the other days didn’t really matter anymore. “I was in technology, but I wasn’t really applying it,” he said. “And I couldn’t see myself going back to school and retracing the steps that I would need in order to [return to the workforce] as a design engineer.”
That’s when he started taking night classes towards his master’s in education. “It was kind of a leap of faith. I really didn’t know if I was going to be any good at it but it seemed like a good idea at the time.” He did it anyway, starting as a math teacher at Tustin High School and gradually switching to technology. “I’ll never make the kind of money I used to make,” Ed told me, “but I’m definitely in a much more fulfilling role and I think I’ve made the right move.”
“Right move” is an understatement. Ed is the creator and director of Tustin High School’s prestigious T-Tech Academy of Technology & Engineering. His students have presented a world-changing project at Lemelson-MIT’s EurkeaFest in 2016, and he is now one of Lemelson-MIT’s official Master Teachers. In 2013, Ed was named Tustin High School’s Teacher of the Year. In 2014, he was named High Impact Teacher of the Year in STEM by Project Tomorrow. In 2015, he was named California Career and Technical Education Teacher of the Year by the California Chapter of the Association from College and Technical Education. According to their website, “Tustin High School’s T-Tech Academy of Technology and Engineering has been named Orange County’s STEM program of the year, and is a proud recipient of the 2015 Golden Bell Award, recognizing T-Tech as one of the best Career Technical Education programs in the state of California.”
It took a lot of learning for Ed to become such a stellar teacher. Ed’s students have a huge impact on his life, and he’s had a huge impact on them. Find out more about Ed’s career as a teacher, his school, and his students in Part Two: Teaching.