The visible trailblazer: Alone among many


In today’s increasingly diverse world, individuals from different backgrounds are finding themselves in various spaces where they may be the only representative of their racial or ethnic group. In my nearly 45 years of living on this planet, I have experienced prejudice, discrimination, poverty, affluence, exclusion, inclusion, challenges, successes and opportunities. In just this past year, I have been invited to share my journey, one that I used to be ashamed to tell but am now extraordinarily proud to shout from the rooftops. In honor of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, I tell my story in its totality.

I am Shinta Herwantoro Hernandez, born in Jakarta, Indonesia, to Javanese parents of royal descent. My immediate and extended family maintained a high social status in Indonesia because of our political connections, academic accomplishments and professional prestige. In 1980, my parents and I migrated to Maryland because my father was accepted into the nuclear engineering program at the University of Maryland in College Park.

We settled in Langley Park, Maryland, in Prince George’s County, a predominantly Hispanic and African American neighborhood widely known for its ethnic diversity, cultural richness and delicious food. However, the community has historically been plagued with high crime rates, prevalent drug and alcohol consumption rates, low employment rates and strong police presence.

This article is part of a series in May that celebrates Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month.

Growing up in Langley Park, I recall fighting to fit in. I stood out like a sore thumb. My family was subject to stares, whispers and slurs. We were also subject to praises, rewards and privileges. Every year in elementary school, I was the only kid who received straight As, was the teacher’s pet and was often asked to make the morning public announcements at the start of each school day. Despite being popular among school personnel, I desperately sought to be popular among my peers. Being naturally inquisitive, I quickly learned what I needed to do become accepted. In third grade, I made myself relevant to my peers by finding out what they liked and talking in slang. By the end of elementary school, I became one of the popular kids. In fact, I was labeled as the honorary member of each ethnic group that I was a part of, which made me have a sense of pride and honor to be viewed in such a way by my peers. Nonetheless, during these formative years, I was often the only Asian American in the room – alone among many.

A permanent stay

A young Shinta Herwantoro and her parents in a royal photo.

My parents intended to stay for no more than five years and return to Indonesia, back to our life of royalty and connections. However, much like the story of many immigrants, we wanted to stay for one more year… and then one more year… until it became forever. Much to my grandparents’ dismay, my parents decided to stay in America and live a life devoid of royal privileges. So, we continued to live in Langley Park, in the midst of grave poverty.

Middle school came and went, and I became increasingly popular among my peers, all the while still maintaining good grades and continuing to be the teachers’ (and principal’s) favorite student. Like many in my generation, I was a “latchkey” kid because my parents had no choice but to work, so I was left on my own when it came to cooking dinner, completing homework and getting ready for school the next day.

High school days

High school arrived, and I was enthralled at the idea of a new chapter in my life. Unfortunately, my grades began slipping, and my parents took quick notice. They immediately began researching about neighboring Montgomery County, one of the most affluent and diverse counties in America. It felt like an overnight phenomenon. I soon found myself living in Rockville, Maryland, a predominantly White city, and attending the Academy of the Holy Cross, an all-girls Catholic high school. Once again, I found myself fighting to fit in. Once again, I stood out like a sore thumb. Once again, I was often the only Asian American in the room – alone among many.

As I navigated a new educational system, I frequently felt like an outsider. The lack of representation and cultural understanding made me acutely aware of my differences. However, I refused to let these circumstances define or limit me. Instead, I used them to propel myself forward. Education was my pathway to empowerment. Throughout my years at Holy Cross, I found a way to relate to my peers, thus allowing me to fit in. I was inducted into the National Honor Society, graduated in the top 15% of my class, and was accepted into Brandeis University in Massachusetts. Later, I matriculated into Georgetown University for a master’s program and the University of Maryland in College Park for the sociology doctoral program. Yet again, I found myself alone among many.

Growing as a leader

I knew my identity made me stand out prominently. I soon realized that being the sole representative of my ethnic group in any environment or community offered a valuable opportunity for me to create change. I embraced this difference and strove for greater impact. During my young adult years, whether I was in college, graduate school or in the workplace, I aspired to succeed in every space I was in, burning the midnight oil, engaging in work beyond expectations and challenging myself in uncomfortable spaces. In doing so, supervisors would praise and reward me with raises and promotions. I felt supported and relevant, allowing me the space and place to trailblaze in areas of innovation.

By using my voice and showing my work, I aimed to break down stereotypes, foster understanding among my peers and colleagues, and engage in conversations that promoted cultural exchange. It was through these efforts that I began seeing myself as a leader and change agent.

Home at MC

Despite years working in think tank organizations, I must have enjoyed school so much that I found myself back in academia, this time as a sociology instructor. Naturally inquisitive, it made sense that I taught sociology. Having taught at several institutions in Maryland, I found Montgomery College (MC) to be my home. MC is not just an employer; it is a family identity. My parents and I took courses at MC many decades ago and have always felt like we belonged. Its supportive environment has enabled me to thrive beyond imagination, providing me with the opportunities to obtain five promotions and numerous awards in my 16 years of employment. Because of the inclusive environment and its diverse student and employee populations, MC is one of a few places in my life that I am not alone among many.

Shanita Hernandez at her Ph.D. graduation.

Today, I am the founding dean of the virtual campus at MC, and one of only three Asian American administrators. With humbling pride, I am the highest-ranking Asian American administrator (and female, on top of that), but with a deep sense of responsibility, I must help strengthen leadership skills and improve opportunities for this population. My journey from poverty to community college leadership has been characterized by perseverance and resilience. Along the way, I encountered numerous mentors and supporters who believed in my potential, encouraged me to debunk stereotypes, bolstered my confidence and provided me with the necessary tools to navigate the complexities that come with leadership.

Navigating leadership positions as an Asian American – and female – means breaking through stereotypes and challenging preconceived notions. It requires me to constantly demonstrate competence, boldness, courage, strength, professionalism, resilience and authenticity. My unique position continues to serve as a catalyst for my personal and professional development. Like other Asian Americans who came before me, who were likely also alone among many, we hope to inspire others to pursue their dreams and defy the limitations imposed by societal expectations.

Today, in my role as a community college leader, I strive to create an inclusive and supportive environment for all students, especially those from marginalized populations. I also strive to support colleagues who aspire in community college leadership. Being the only Asian American, and female, in the room has not always been easy, but it has given me a unique perspective and a platform to effect change. My journey hopefully serves as a reminder that regardless of our backgrounds, we all have the capacity to rise above adversity and make a positive impact in our communities. My uniqueness has given me the opportunity to bridge gaps, foster understanding, and celebrate the richness of different cultures at Montgomery College, in Montgomery County, throughout the state of Maryland, and across America.

In honor of Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month, I tell my story so that others who come after me may also visibly trailblaze and never be alone among many.

About the Author

Shinta H. Hernandez
Dr. Shinta H. Hernandez is the founding dean of the virtual campus at Montgomery College in Maryland.