Joseph Hernandez was halfway across the globe on his first trip outside of the U.S. when the world stopped.
As travel restrictions tightened amid the worsening pandemic early last year, the Pacifica native was in South Africa during a study abroad program about 10,000 miles away from home.
Though his international trip was expected to span until May, Hernandez started fearing in March that he would be stranded during the public health crisis and decided to return to the United States.
The path back was not as direct as Hernandez had hoped, as a sudden crush of travelers scrambling to duck under closing international borders overwhelmed airports across the world.
Rather than retrace the steps that brought him to Johannesburg through New York to San Francisco, Hernandez found no direct returning flights — requiring him to fly first to Istanbul, then back across the Atlantic and ultimately to the Bay Area.
The harrowing experience caused Hernandez to analyze how the pandemic had been mismanaged by political officials to such an extent that travelers faced being marooned in foreign lands.
The senior at Summit Shasta charter high school in Daly City used that as motivation to alter his future aspirations, pivoting away from an interest in computer science to pursuing a degree in politics.
He hopes that ultimately a career in governance or public policy will allow him to find solutions to the world’s next great problem.
“It will be a different political situation when I’m in it, but I want to be involved rather than on the sidelines,” Hernandez said.
The pivot caused Hernandez to reimagine his future, and forced him to change much of the work he had already completed in applying to colleges.
But last summer, Hernandez said he fully committed to applying to top tier universities across the country with hopes of attending a world-class politics program.
“I didn’t talk to my friends from Aug. 1 to Nov. 15,” Hernandez said. “It was all just college application work.”
His dedication paid off, and Hernandez received acceptance letters to the University of Southern California and Vanderbilt University. But it was at the dinner table at his dad’s house in San Mateo where he received the offer that changed his life.
“I remember we freaked out. My dad just yelled ‘my son just got into Harvard!’ Pretty sure the entire apartment building heard that one,” Hernandez said.
Hernandez accepted the offer from the prestigious Massachusetts institution, and expects to move to the East Coast and begin his next chapter in the fall. He plans to take a government major, while also advancing his interest in philosophy.
Though he is unclear exactly how he would like his political career to play out, Hernandez said he hopes to ultimately help shape the future.
“I want to see where I fit into the political world. I don’t have to be a politician to be happy. I just want to have an influence on the policy that makes its way into law,” he said.
Climate change, voting rights, criminal justice reform and immigration law are among the issues Hernandez considers most intriguing, as he surveys the future landscape.
And while the work ahead may seem ambitious, Hernandez has already started taking some political action locally by working on rent control campaigns in his hometown.
Reflecting on his transition away from focusing on computer science in favor of politics, Hernandez said he believed it was a gradual evolution rather than an abrupt decision.
“That was something that had been coming for a long time,” he said.
But at the time, it may have felt like a snap decision. One made in the aftermath of a potentially traumatic experience that he hopes to help prevent for future generations.
“My long-term goal is to make a difference,” he said.