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Getting to Know Student Trustee Valentina Fernández

By Gregg Sangillo

Valentina Fernández is trying to facilitate more conversations between trustees and students. Credit: Jeff Watts. Image: Picture of student trustee Valentina Fernández on the Quad in front of Ward Circle Building.

Valentina Fernández is trying to facilitate more conversations between trustees and students. Credit: Jeff Watts.

As student trustee, Valentina Fernández is getting a look behind the curtains at the inner workings of university leadership. And while settling into this role, she soon became part of that decision-making process.

“It’s really nice to see just how much the trustees genuinely want to hear from students, and they’re so open to input,” says Fernández. “They all have close ties to the university, so they care a lot about this institution and how it can move forward.”

Fernández displays that same level of commitment to the university. She’s a junior now, taking stock of her past—and future—on campus. “I am so happy to be at AU, and I can’t imagine being anywhere else,” she says.

The Role of Trustee

Fernández officially started in the position in May, though for many months before that she shadowed the previous student trustee, Shyheim Snead. As student trustee—the first ever Latinx to hold that position—she’s learned to take the long view. “Sometimes what you think may be the best decision as a student doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to be the best decision 10 years down the line for the university. So, it’s sort of balancing between that and knowing when it’s appropriate to chime in on something and speak up.”

The Board of Trustees’ agenda includes assessing the university’s new fundraising plans and its work on diversity and inclusion. In her position, she tries to be cognizant of how decisions affect the student body and campus life. Beyond that, it’s up to each student trustee to define their role.

“I’m trying to work on facilitating more conversations between trustees and students. I think it’s really easy to get lost in translation, if students aren’t able to put a face on the trustees,” she explains. “It includes just hosting little coffee talks with trustees, inviting them to large campus events.”

From Music to Politics

Fernández was born in Venezuela before moving to Puerto Rico. During her elementary school years, she relocated to the Orlando, Florida, area. A classically trained singer, she attended high school at Osceola County School for the Arts.

She considered a career in music, but a few twists of fate caused her to re-think her future. She traveled to Washington for a debate competition, and she was immediately enamored with the atmosphere. “I loved everything about DC—the culture, the museums, the public transportation that I didn’t have in Florida,” she remembers. “So, I thought, ‘I’ll consider DC. Something to think about.’”

Another time, she was browsing in a Barnes and Noble when she stumbled upon a book by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. Inspired by Warren’s words and message, she started considering political work and told her mom she’d like to attend college in the nation’s capital. She applied here early decision without even visiting the campus.

“I just had a gut feeling that AU was the place for me. The first time I set foot onto campus was move-in day,” she recalls, “and it worked out.”

Overcoming Fears

Fernández is a double major in political science and public relations & strategic communication. During her first year, she felt apprehensive in Lara Schwartz’s School of Public Affairs course on the American Constitution. Fearing that she wasn’t well-versed in the subject matter, and wasn’t participating enough in class, she visited Schwartz during office hours. Schwartz reassured Fernández that she was bright and entirely capable.

“So, I started going to her office hours a lot more. And I just felt immediately more confident in class,” says Fernández. Schwartz became a mentor, and she asked Fernández to be a teaching assistant for the class the following semester.

“She is really a standout,” says Schwartz. “I feel like she’s the kind of student who makes you feel confirmed in your decision to be a teacher. She shares her voice in such a collaborative and respectful way. And people benefit from having her be a part of their class.”

In other campus-related activities, Fernández previously served as vice president of College Democrats. Through the Wellness Center, she was a facilitator on sexual assault prevention and consent issues for first-year students.

Becoming a Citizen

Fernández recently celebrated a momentous occasion, traveling to Tampa, Florida, for a ceremony to become a U.S. citizen.

She took an oath of loyalty, sang the national anthem and recited the Pledge of Allegiance. “I think the exciting thing to watch was just my parents’ reaction, because they were really emotional about it, and they were really proud,” she says.

In fact, her mom is now working to attain citizenship as well, and Fernández says the process has brought them closer together. “I’ll quiz her on certain things, and she’ll ask, ‘Can you test me? Can you pretend that you’re the interviewer?’ She’ll say, ‘Don’t talk to me in Spanish at all. Ask me about geography. Ask me about U.S. history now.’”

Fernández says her own citizenship process was a bit different. Having lived here for so many years, she certainly felt American already. And even if she couldn’t vote, she did GOTV and helped register others. Yet she was still excited afterwards.

“I feel like this is just a stepping stone to everything I’ve always wanted to do.”