Josh Fernandez, Folsom Lake College, Mule Creek State Prison
Professor works with prisoners, formerly incarcerated students
Community college professor Josh Fernandez didn’t take a direct path to teaching, nor was it originally his calling. It took finding someone who believed in him while he was in college and a whole other career in journalism before he became a professor. Now, he works to help prisoners and formerly incarcerated students, as well as his community.
Where do you work?
Fernandez teaches English writing and composition and creative writing at Folsom Lake College. He also serves as the faculty coordinator for the college’s Prison and Reentry Education Program and teaches composition classes at Mule Creek State Prison through that program. “I’m trying to build bridges for formerly incarcerated students to all of the resources that we have in academia and beyond in the community.”
His last semester teaching composition classes at the prison was one of the best teaching experiences for Fernandez. “The inmates were so excited. It was the first writing class in the prison, and they were great writers and super enthusiastic. It was a really fun class.”
He plans to return to the program once in-person teaching resumes.
Teaching community college
Fernandez has taught for about eight years, getting his start with the faculty diversity internship program at Los Rios Community College District. “It’s a great program that teaches you to be a teacher. We don’t normally get that as college professors—you go straight into teaching,” he said. “Not only did it teach me how to teach, it introduced me to a lot of people in the field and it was a steppingstone into the world of teaching.”
How has the pandemic changed what you do?
Fernandez said his work changed drastically when classes moved online. “My strength as a teacher is connecting with students in person, being there for students in person, opening my office to students and meeting with them outside of school to help them with their work and with anything, really. It’s been hard to translate everything I love into an online course.”
Why did you become a professor?
“I had a horrible education experience from kindergarten through high school. I counted out academia and education early in my life. I had a rough time after high school, for a long time. I kind of moved around the country doing odd jobs and restaurant work.”
But his view toward education changed when he took an English class at Sacramento City College. “My professor liked the way I wrote and saw something in me I never saw in myself. That was the moment when everything changed for me—my worth as a human being, the things I could do for other people. She had her life together, she was able to help other students, she got me a job as at the writing center as a tutor. All these things were life changing, because I started to see myself as a different person.”
His experience in community college seemed opposite to his early education experience. “People were interested in me and my story,” Fernandez said. “The professors at Sacramento City College were some of the kindest, most supportive people. I saw right away, that’s exactly who I want to be. I see students coming in low and leaving class feeling like they could do whatever they wanted in life.”
After college, Fernandez worked in journalism for about 11 years. But as journalism shifted online and news outlets went under, he needed a backup plan. His former professor encouraged him to start teaching college. “Now it’s great. I’m in the position to help students fulfill whatever they want to fulfill, even if it’s not in academia.”
What’s one thing you’re proud of doing as an educator?
In his first week of online classes, Fernandez held an open office hour via Zoom. Nobody was required to come, but everyone showed up. “For me, that was insane. It wasn’t a requirement. They weren’t getting graded. I was worried that my online classes weren’t interesting or that my personality and care for students wasn’t coming through. It was a great moment. I knew my students were in it as much as I was in it. I’ve been down about this COVID pandemic and isolating so much. There are very few moments of joy, and few moments of just togetherness and connection, and that was one.”
What’s one fun thing about you? We understand you write poetry
“Poetry is not as much fun as it is labor,” Fernandez said. “I do write. I’m at the end of writing a book of creative nonfiction, sort of about growing up and my experiences with school and violence and how I turned into a community organizer and an educator, which is actually pretty fun. I’ve been doing it with a writer friend, and we’ve been trading our books back and forth and editing together.”
Tell us about your family
Fernandez and his wife have two small children and they work hard to give back to the community. They helped start the Sacramento Community Self Defense Collective to teach mixed martial arts classes. “We feed houseless folks in the park every Sunday morning and we clothe them. We are trying to keep as busy as we can to help the most marginalized people in our community with every resource we can.”
What would you like to do after retirement?
Fernandez jokes he won’t retire until he’s 80. “I think I’m just going to write and hang out when I’m retired.” As a former music journalist, he still writes for publications, so he thinks he’ll keep doing that. “Stuff like that doesn’t pay a lot of money, the things I enjoy doing, but who cares because I’ll be retired.”
Teacher Talk is a series of profiles on California teachers and other educators. To be considered for a future profile, please email Communications@CalSTRS.com, with Teacher Talk in the subject line.