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By Chris Helms
Alex Hernández-Siegel’s identity includes a rich mix of elements: His Puerto Rican heritage, his Jewish father, his role in high-level science recruiting and his grounding as a Mennonite chaplain.
And he says Harvard University supports all of them.
“I love Harvard because it helps you be who you are,” Hernández-Siegel told El Mundo during a recent interview in a conference room at Harvard Medical School, where his day job is recruiting top diverse talent to their genomics program.
Finding students from historically underrepresented backgrounds to probe the secrets of DNA keeps Hernández-Siegel busy. But Harvard also encourages his spiritual side. He’s one of Harvard’s roughly 30 chaplains from various faiths and denominations.
“It’s wise to be as holistic as possible,” Hernández-Siegel said of living in such seemingly different worlds — advancing cutting-edge science and nourishing centuries-old faith.
‘Mi Hijo, We Have to Leave’
Hernández-Siegel’s route to Harvard started in Queens. But the 1980s were a rough time in New York City’s history.
“Mi hijo, we need to leave,” he remembers his mother saying.
He was 15 when the family moved to Lancaster, Penn. They found it to be a safe, supportive community. By 16, Hernández-Siegel has been re-baptized in the Mennonite faith.
After taking an undergraduate degree in cultural anthropology from Millersville University, Hernández-Siegel continued his studies by gaining a master’s in that discipline from Dartmouth University in Hanover, New Hampshire.
That began a long association with the Ivy League school. Hernández-Siegel would spend the first 14 years of his academic career there. He played a variety of roles at Dartmouth, rising to become assistant dean of student life.
In 2009, he left the bucolic campus in the New Hampshire mountains for Boston University, where he took on duties as associate director of admissions and enrollment. He said he found Boston to be a nice blend of urban New York City and rural Hanover. By 2010, he’d landed at Harvard.
‘Leadership From Every Background’
At every turn, he has nurturing talented young people in general — and talented young Latinos in particular.
He said of those roles as mentor, advisor and chaplain that he asks himself, “How am I making people wealthy in a life sense?”
Recent students he’s especially proud of include science writer Stephany Foster and Sandra Fernandez, now at the University of Chicago.
“We need to have leadership from every background,” Hernández-Siegel said.
He’s interested in creating a pipeline into high-level science for diverse students. While the number of Latinos is growing in science fields, he said Latinos are still underrepresented.
As for his own background, Hernández-Siegel said he’s immensely proud of his Puerto Rican heritage, especially the Taino blood he carries.
“I think our identities are very complex,” Hernández-Siegel said.
His mother is from the town of Barceloneta on the island’s northern coast. His wife, Cynthia Matos, was born on the island.
At Harvard, Hernández-Siegel has helped build that sense of belonging through his work as co-chairperson of the Association of Harvard Latino Faculty and Staff.
“There’s something about hearing the Spanish language that makes you feel at home,” he said.
And while Harvard has a deserved reputation as a competitive place, right at home is how the school makes Hernández-Siegel feel.
Name: Alex Hernández-Siegel
Job: Director of Academic and Diversity Programs for Genomics Training at Harvard Medical School
Family: Wife, Cynthia Matos
Obsessions: Their Puerto Rican rescue dog Lucy
Born in: Queens, New York
Heritage: Puerto Rican
Lives in: Malden