For as long as she can remember, Judith Hernandez knew she belonged at PLNU.

The middle of three daughters to two Nazarene pastors, Judith’s entire life has been shaped by the church. Her parents met in youth group and continued to take on more leadership roles as they married and started a family. They served as missionaries in Tijuana, commuting from their home in Los Angeles County before Judith’s father became ordained and began pastoring full time with a Spanish-speaking congregation in the San Bernardino area.

“We were always at church,” Judith recalled. “As a kid, Sunday afternoons, [my parents] would have meetings with the board and I’d be sleeping in the pews.”

As part of the Southern California District Church of the Nazarene, Judith’s orbit often overlapped with PLNU. The university’s Summer Ministry Teams (SMT) would visit her church or camps she participated in, and she’d visit campus for meetings and other events. She remembers visiting campus as early as elementary school, joining her mom who was chaperoning a retreat for her older sister.

“She couldn’t just leave me at home, so she brought me too,” she said. “So I’ve been coming here since I was just a little kid.”

When it came to deciding on where she’d attend college, Judith’s choice ultimately came down to PLNU or Northwest Nazarene University (NNU). Looking back, though, it was never even close.

“Point Loma was always my dream school; it was always the one,” she said. “I’ve met so many amazing people who have come from Point Loma, and I’ve always been inspired by them.”

“Point Loma was always my dream school; it was always the one. I’ve met so many amazing people who have come from Point Loma, and I’ve always been inspired by them.”

The tougher decision for her, however, was what to study.

Judith knew she wanted to continue working with the church, helping others find it both as formative and transformative as she had. From an early age, she developed a fascination with scripture, specifically the historical, cultural, and linguistic contexts that shape how people interpret it. But she also loved the compassionate component of ministry and serving others. Both traits she inherited from her parents.

“My dad is such a knowledgeable teacher, and my mom is so compassionate with the way she works with people, praying for them and making sure she’s there to help if they need anything,” she said. “Seeing how passionate they both are about the word and people inspired me, and I have both of them to look up to for that.”

In ongoing conversations about her studies, Judith’s parents often affirmed the number of talents and paths she could pursue. But above all, they reassured her the Lord would provide and guide her wherever she would be called.

So, in the fall of 2019, Judith enrolled and set off for PLNU, her dream school. She decided to start off undeclared, giving herself the option to explore and remain open to wherever God would call her.

Pulling Out The Gold

Now a student on the campus she grew up visiting, Judith noticed both the places she was familiar with along with the new. For example, the old lawn in front of Ryan Library where she remembered running around was now the new science complex. But as the excitement and newness began to wear off, a sense of culture shock began to set in.

Judith began comparing herself with her new friends and peers. And coming from a primarily Spanish-speaking home and congregation, she began feeling self-conscious about her differences in background, beliefs, and culture.

“I was used to being surrounded by people who look just like me,” she said. “I started becoming very insecure about myself: why my hair is this color and why my body looks the way it does; It was very hard for me to kind of embrace what I looked like, and I didn’t feel as confident or that I fit in. It definitely felt lonely, and I didn’t know that was going to be such a struggle for me.”

Judith and a friend walk Caf Lane on campus.

As the first in her family to attend university, Judith also felt overwhelmed navigating the college process on her own. While she’s grateful for the generous support and resources like PLNU’s Student Financial Services, it was difficult for her to even know what questions and information to ask about.

“Am I paid for this semester? Am I missing anything? Am I going to be able to pay for next semester?” Judith wondered. “All these documents I had to fill out, having to figure out financial aid and student loans on top of not knowing what comes after graduation, there was a lot of uncertainty.”

Whenever Judith felt insecure, lonely, or a lack of confidence comparing herself to other students who seemed to have everything figured out, she turned to her family for support. Often, she leaned on the compassion and wisdom of her mother.

“She’d calm me down, saying ‘you don’t have to look like everyone else; I’m glad you don’t,’” Judith remembered.

But her parents encouraged her to continue pushing outside her comfort zone and reaching out to the community and resources available to her. As she connected with her new friends and hallmates, Judith began noticing what she calls “pulling out the gold” in her.

“It definitely helped being surrounded by people who were willing to ask questions and encourage me to embrace who I am and what’s unique about me,” she said. “My instinct was to blend in, but I’m not like everyone else, and there’s so much beauty in that — that’s the whole point of university!”

Coming into PLNU, Judith was placed in Learning Experiences for Academic Progress (LEAP), a program that helps students transition from high school to college academics during their first year through mentoring, tutoring, and other resources. A straight-A student, Judith struggled when it came to test-taking. But with the additional support through LEAP, as well as her overall progress in her studies, she developed more confidence in her academics and more clarity in what she wanted out of her college experience.

By the second semester of her freshman year, she committed to majoring in Christian studies with a concentration in leadership, which would allow her to explore the theological, historical, and pastoral elements that originally drew her to ministry.

Judith and others pray in Prescott Prayer Chapel.

Learning to Lead Others

Now with her major declared, Judith could better connect with professors and mentors in PLNU’s School of Theology and Christian Ministry to help further unravel her vocational and career goals. In her sophomore year, Judith enrolled in Introduction to Christian Theology with Dr. Michael Lodahl, Ph.D., professor of theology and world religions, as well as her new academic advisor.

“From the beginning, I just had a soft spot in my heart for Judith,” he recalled. “I love her heart and her spirit, and I think she’s such a steadying influence on others around her.”

Dr. Lodahl also went on to teach Judith in other classes including the Christian Tradition and Christ and the Church, where he gained a deeper insight into her background and noticed she knew a lot more than she gave herself credit for.

“Because she grew up in the church, she’s seen it from the inside; she’s been able to draw a lot on her own experience,” he said. “She asks some of the best questions that help spark important, relevant, and practical discussions. Having been a pastor, and as a Nazarene myself, her questions are always really grounded and helpful, especially for other students who are preparing for ministry.”

In those discussions — as well as hearing from students with backgrounds and experiences different from what she was familiar with — Judith began to discover more of the intricacies of the Christian faith she sought to learn all along coming into PLNU. Some of her coursework allowed her to attend services and denominations outside her own church experience, including a Greek Orthodox church, Catholic mass, and even the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. She also began attending a nondenominational congregation for her own personal exploration.

“My mind’s been broadened and challenged in absolutely the best ways,” she said. “Classes like Christian Care of the Soul, Biblical Studies, or Reading Scripture Faithfully [have taught me more] about the history and context and different ways you can interpret different books and genres in the Bible — and even how different words can mean something different to people from different cultures and backgrounds. Seeing how scripture can still be a part of people’s lives despite those different factors, it’s helped me to see the beautiful bouquet that is Christianity.”

“My mind’s been broadened and challenged in absolutely the best ways. Seeing how scripture can still be a part of people’s lives despite those different factors, it’s helped me to see the beautiful bouquet that is Christianity.”

Moving into her upper-division courses, Judith enrolled in Teaching and Preaching the Bible in her junior year with Dr. Rebecca Laird, D.Min., professor of Christian ministry and practice. There, Judith immediately gravitated to Dr. Laird’s wisdom, example, and encouragement.

“I don’t have students in our department until they’re juniors or seniors,” Dr. Laird said, “so when I first had Judith for preaching class, that’s one of the ways I get to know students best. Because when you preach, you have to bring your full self. Seeing Judith be nervous and uncertain, comparing herself a little bit (because all students do at first), as she’d preach, she was able to bring her story, her deep faith, and her passion together in a way that takes the room and commands the kind of attention that someone in leadership must.”

For her first sermon, Judith shared about a minor car crash she was in during high school. But by sharing her story in front of her classmates, and the natural way she was able to connect it with her faith, she began to finally notice how simply being herself could help others find that connection as well.

“Just being myself really took off a lot of the pressure, and Dr. Laird definitely helped me learn more about what it means to be a pastor who can connect with their congregation through story and develop their own style of preaching and teaching. It helped me see the reality of being a pastor, that I don’t need to look or sound like anyone else, that I just need to be confident in my story and who God made me to be, and how the Lord is working in my life.”

Judith attends a PLNU STOCM class.

Later that semester, Judith decided to build on what she was learning about ministry and continue pushing beyond her comfort zone. She decided to apply and run for ASB director of spiritual life. 

“It happened so fast and was all by the grace of God,” she said. “Speaking [at that level] is still a huge fear of mine, but the opportunity opened and I took that leap of faith saying, ‘alright Lord, this is yours.’”

It turned out Judith was the only one to apply for the role. But during ASB chapel elections, she made sure to let her peers get to know her and her goals.

“I want to take the time to listen and get to know students, to make sure their voices are heard, and to make chapel and even the whole college experience as accommodating in any way I can,” she said. “I want to establish more accountability and vulnerability, and I just want people to encounter the Lord as they are.”

“I want to take the time to listen and get to know students, to make sure their voices are heard … I want to establish more accountability and vulnerability, and I just want people to encounter the Lord as they are.”

In preparation for her new role, she turned again to Dr. Laird, who revealed to Judith she not only served in the same role when she was a student, but she was, in fact, the first female to hold that position at PLNU. With her first-hand knowledge, and having helped previous Christian studies students in the same role, Dr. Laird wanted above all to reassure Judith of her God-given talents, as well as the growth and added confidence she’d witnessed in her.

“In the School of Theology, we often talk about how we don’t know our gifts until we’re called forward into a role where you’re needed. Oftentimes, when the community has a need, and you happen to be the person to fulfill it, it’s not always because you’re the only one who could, or that you’re even the best person to do so. But it’s simply your calling.”

Upon hearing Judith’s decision to join ASB, Dr. Lodahl echoed the same: “I was really proud and delighted, and I think she’s eminently qualified,” he said. “One of Judith’s great qualities is she not only shows up, but she does so with great humor, love, and kindness. There’s a real gentleness in her spirit that’s contagious, and I think she’s a marvelous model for fellow students in all kinds of ways. But more importantly, I think she has those qualities of being a great spiritual leader.”

Officially stepping into her role in fall 2022, Judith began taking on the challenges she promised her peers she’d set out to do during election chapel. Most importantly, she welcomed the opportunity for honest and constructive feedback from students of all backgrounds, beliefs, and opinions. Just as she’s learned she belongs at PLNU, she desires to continue improving her leadership and accountability to make chapel the best it can be for others to do the same.

“Being willing to confront hard situations and opinions, I truly want to take the time to just listen,” she said, “being willing to hear criticism and welcome doubts rather than silence them. If not, we give those things so much more power in our lives to [distance ourselves from God and one another]. I just want to find that common ground with everyone, to find those similarities that make us not so different after all.” 

In addition to chapel, Judith has participated more in her department and the campus community in general. She’s served in multiple School of Theology and Christian Ministry departmental chapels and retreats, performing worship, conducting the Lord’s prayer in Spanish, or presiding over communion. After her freshman year in LEAP, she returned to the program as a mentor and tutor following first-year students’ transitions to college as she did.

Between balancing her activities and responsibilities, Judith also made sure to enjoy and make the most of her remaining time at her dream school.

“Coming into PLNU, I remember hoping I’d be able to find my place here and find a community that would encourage me when it comes to truly following Christ and living my life, loving others, and serving God,” she said. “I feel like it’s fulfilled its purpose. I was able to find people who I’m able to be vulnerable and accountable with, and I’ve been able to find professors who truly care about me and welcome me to be myself. I think it’s come full circle and was everything I hoped it would be.”

Meeting the Moments to Come

Judith is still determining her career path beyond college. She’s weighing whether she wants to go on to seminary and become ordained, as well as what role she wants to serve through ministry. No matter what, she’s confident in wherever God calls her, and she’s excited to faithfully give her effort wherever that may be.

“Growing up in the church, I was able to do a little of everything,” she said. “Now that I’ve taken classes in leadership, compassionate ministry in the local context, and what it means to care for others spiritually, I’m having to think, ‘what is it that I truly like?’ And it’s so hard because they’re all great. So it’s something I’m still wrestling with, but I’m also open to the opportunities from the Lord that might spark more of my interest.”

In her final semester, Judith completed her Christian studies capstone course, co-led by Dr. Laird, who — knowing both Judith’s career uncertainties as well as how much she’s grown — is eager to see and support Judith as she discovers that next step.

“It’s a rare student who can claim aspirations for church-based ministry this early in their career,” Dr. Laird said. “To find her confidence, find her skill, decide whether she could lead in that kind of environment, it’s a lot to sort through. Her ASB role is going to help her recognize what many of us see, which is that she has the real gifts and graces for pastoral leadership.”

Judith’s parents are also aware of the questions and decisions she’s sorting through vocationally. No matter what she ends up doing, though, her parents are and will always be proud — especially as the first in their family to attend university.

“My dad’s proud that I’m doing ministry, following his footsteps, but he’s always told me whatever I do he’s just proud that I’m able to continue my studies. And my mom always tells me not only how proud she is but how much my younger sister looks up to me,” she said. “There’s a little pressure, but I’m just excited to be able to graduate and make them all proud. I also know that although I’m the first, I won’t be the last.”

Wherever she’s called, Judith has grown tremendously in her confidence, her leadership, and her ability to help others find themselves in the church as she did.

“If I were to talk to freshman-year me, I’d say to embrace who you are, that it’s okay to be different, and it’s okay to be yourself,” she said. “The fact that there are so many other people here at PLNU who are behind that, and people who are kind and generous enough to invest in me financially to make sure I’m able to get my education and fulfill the purpose God has for me, I truly feel like I belong here. I know it’s a seed that will continue to bear fruit as the Lord continues to use my life to impact others and truly love people in a Christlike way. It’s changed my life and helped me see the world is better with a Judith in it.”

Taylor is a PLNU alum, writer, and editor with experience in nonprofit marketing, communications, branding, and storytelling on behalf of higher education, environmental restoration, and international economic development organizations.