Earning a college degree is difficult for most, but some encounter unimaginable hurdles along their journey. Such was the case for 22-year-old Gabriela Hernandez, who on June 18 received a Bachelor of Science in criminal justice degree from La Sierra University, a monumental feat in the wake of a car accident several months earlier that resulted in the loss of her right arm and a broken leg.
“I did not think I was going to make it to graduation, but this weekend means to me success,” she said just prior to commencement festivities. “This graduation showed me that I can do anything if I push myself harder and surround myself with the right people,” Hernandez said. “When I walk across the stage, tears of joy will probably come out of my eyes because I have accomplished something that not everyone can do, and I am one step closer to my career.”
On December 29, 2022, during winter break, Hernandez was a passenger in a vehicle traveling on a freeway near Perris, California, United States, when the car flipped five times, she said, describing the accident. The impact caused her to lose consciousness, which she regained for a time while trapped in the wreckage. She realized then that her arm was nearly severed. Good Samaritan travelers stopped and assisted her until an ambulance arrived.
At first, devastation set in over the potential loss of career dreams and plans. “I was crying to the doctor, I’m like, ‘My career’s over.’ The doctors tried being so supportive,” Hernandez said. “They were showing me pictures of officers with amputated arms. [They said] do not lose hope.” But after the first of two surgeries, Hernandez began to regain her naturally positive spirit. “I was already cracking jokes,” she said.
Meanwhile, her La Sierra criminal justice program instructors immediately offered support. Adjunct Professor Todd Bell, whom she contacted after the accident, set to work informing Hernandez’s teachers on providing assistance and accommodation. “I think that was the hard part; he was so sad,” she said.
Adjunct professor and collaborating faculty member Khary Johnson noted his deep concern for Hernandez’s wellbeing as well as the strength she displayed. “My wife and I prayed for her fast recovery,” he said. “When Gabby began the winter and spring quarters, she was still determined to graduate and begin her career in criminal justice. She was going through a lot of pain mentally and physically, but she persevered by continuing to attend class. Her character was so strong that she did not shy away from interacting with many of her classmates and professors.”
Hernandez’s classmates also rallied around her as she moved forward with a difficult recovery that involved learning to write and type with her left hand while also dealing with the broken bone in her leg. “I was going to drop out of school, take a break or something. But the day I got out of the hospital there were like eight seniors that showed up to my house with a basket [of gifts and snacks],” she said. “They even brought little toys for my dog.”
The students organized a schedule with each one taking a day of the week to assist Hernandez with her studies and provide encouragement. They took notes in class and passed them along to Hernandez and provided hand-strengthening activities such as coloring books to aid in her recovery. “I feel like that’s what helped me stay in school,” she said. “Whenever I was down, they found a way to cheer me up, so I feel like that’s how I [pushed] through schooling. I really appreciate them.”
The group of schoolmates plan to keep in contact following graduation and continue the strong bond that formed among them all. “We’re still going to hang out after this, we’re going to watch ourselves grow in our careers,” Hernandez said.
Progress continues for Hernandez, including a continuation of learning to master left-handed writing — “I’m still slow,” she says. And she hopes to acquire a prosthetic arm in the near future, which will provide significant assistance, including with gym workouts that are important to her goals in law enforcement.
Hernandez was influenced toward a career in law enforcement initially through police shows she watched in her youth that prompted a desire to also become a crime-fighting hero. In attending La Sierra University, where the criminal justice program presented a convincing option, she followed in the footsteps of her older sister, Dyanna Hernandez, who graduated from La Sierra in 2022, also with a degree in criminal justice.
Prior to the accident, Hernandez had her sights set on joining the Irvine Police Department and working her way into a detective’s position. “Then the accident happened and I’m like, OK, now I have to start somewhere else,” she said. Her concerns were relieved by professors Bell and Johnson, who assured her there were many roles for which she could apply even before receiving the aid of a prosthetic.
Meanwhile, her college graduation in June, which had seemed unlikely just a few months prior, was a moment of great celebration. On June 15, the Criminal Justice Department presented her with a special recognition for perseverance during its annual senior awards event.
“I was so proud of her graduating,” Johnson said. “I reflected on everything she went through during and after the car accident.”
“I know I have made them [friends and family members] so proud and I will continue making them proud,” Hernandez said. “God kept me alive from that accident for a reason. Now I have to go out there with my degree and find out what that reason was for. Everything in life has a purpose.”