NORTH TAMPA — For Cesar Hernandez, 28 hours in a Brooklyn jail was an epiphany.
The felons he shared space with were impressed with him — he had fought the police. Not only had he been accepted by the group, he had star power.
Still, he thought: This is not me.
That was four years ago, and his life has changed greatly. Last week, Hernandez, 25, attended a White House reception to celebrate Cinco de Mayo with President Barack Obama and the first lady.
The invitation came as his yearlong tenure ends as student body president at University of South Florida, a year marked by accomplishments that caught the attention of a wider audience.
In April, he won top honors in an international speech competition among college students at a conference in Dubai. In his speech, Hernandez called for passage of the Dream Act, which would allow students who were brought to the United States illegally as small children to apply for citizenship.
Later in the month at USF, he delivered a marathon, 24-hour political speech on immigration reform and to call attention to problems resulting from cutting funds to colleges.
The Brooklyn-born son of Guatemalan parents has won the USF Leadership Legacy Award, the USF Hispanic Student Heritage Award and plaudits from accomplished professionals.
“He's gifted, energetic, enthusiastic, and he also thinks things through a little bit, which I think is very important,'' says Dr. John Sinnott, director of infectious disease and international medicine at the University of South Florida and Tampa General Hospital. Sinnott got to know Hernandez when the student sought advice on forming a medical outreach charity in Africa.
A premed student, Hernandez plans to graduate from USF in the fall with a degree in biomedical science. He wants to become a doctor and, "if I could write my life,'' win a seat in the U.S. Senate.
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A few years ago, Hernandez's future looked anything but bright. After being recruited as a fullback on the University of New Mexico's football team, he lost his scholarship when the eligibility rules changed, requiring more community college credits than he had acquired.
He returned home to the one-bedroom Brooklyn apartment he shared with four other family members. Then came more setbacks: He and his fiancee broke up; a close friend died; he totaled his car — and he punched a New York police officer.
As Hernandez tells the story, his 17-year-old sister phoned him while walking home, worried about a group of young men following her. Hernandez sprinted to her and confronted the men, who ran off. Just then, he says, an undercover officer grabbed his arm. Assuming the officer was just another thug, Hernandez punched him. Other officers, there for a nearby drug sting, joined the fight, and Hernandez was tossed in jail. Authorities eventually dropped the charges, he said.
"It was a life-changing event for me,'' Hernandez said.
Trying to pick up where he left off when he lost his scholarship, he took science classes in a local community college. But tension had been building at home, and it boiled over when he got into an argument with his uncle. His mother kicked him out of the house. "I had NYPD at my door,'' he says.
With $5 in his pocket, Hernandez says, he took shelter in the nearby train station, sleeping there at night and attending college in the day. It was a low point, but for some reason he felt optimistic. He felt he would make it.
"Sometimes that's all you need — you are the only person that believes in you.''
He reunited with his father, who left home when Hernandez was 3, came back, then left again. The father took him in, and Hernandez stayed for three months, or about the time it took to make arrangements to go to USF. Student loans financed it.
At USF, he reconnected with his old fraternity, Lambda Theta Phi, and soon was elected its president. Chapter members grew from 14 to 40, performed 3,000 hours of community service and helped start the nonprofit Seraph Foundation, which provides scholarships to underprivileged international students.
Soon, Hernandez decided to run for student body president. Spencer Montgomery agreed to run for vice president on a ticket that he says was expected to finish dead last.
"There's been a lot of positive energy," said Montgomery, 23, a graduating senior from Jupiter. "I feel that we've accomplished at lot this year."
For Hernandez now, life seems as bright as the clear blue skies outside the window of his student government office or his off-campus apartment. He has resolved his troubles with his family, who have visited him in Tampa.
He looks forward to his last semester, free of extracurricular responsibilities. With all the activity of the past year, Hernandez said his grades have dropped from straight A's to A's and B's, with one C — "a death sentence for premed.''
But before he goes to medical school, he has applied for a grant to attend graduate school at Cambridge in England.
"I really just want to be a scholar," he said. "I'm in it for the long run."
Philip Morgan can be reached at (813) 226-3435 or [email protected]