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Alumni Profile: Irene Fernando

Irene is from Los Angeles, California. When she was 17, she moved to attend the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities where she earned a BS in Business and a MEd in Youth Development Leadership.10 days into her freshmen year at the U, she co-founded Students Today Leaders Forever (STLF). In 2015, she was selected as a Bush Foundation Fellow and began teaching social entrepreneurship at St. Mary’s University. Currently, she works at Thrivent Financial leading in talent management and organizational design. She has also served in a variety of community engagement roles, such as a Carlson School of Management Alumni board member, a Global Shapers Minneapolis Hub member, and Alpha Gamma Delta Alumnae Chapter President. She is running for Hennepin County Commissioner- District 2 in 2018. 

Irene, Isaiah (STLF’s Executive Director), and Claire (STLF's Communications and Development Fellow) sat down over a cup of coffee and a doughnut for this profile, here is their conversation.

For many people a conversation between four freshman in a dorm marks the very beginning of STLF; what were some of your experiences before college that paved the way for that conversation and the work you did that resulted in STLF?

Well, there are a lot of instances that led up to that night, so it’s hard to pin down any specific thing. For one, my mom and dad immigrated to the U.S. from the Philippines in pursuit of the American Dream, and so they were constantly encouraging my siblings and I to not only push beyond what we thought was possible but to create what we thought was possible, as well.

We [the founders] were all involved in student council and leadership stuff in high school, but the reason we met up that night in the dorm room was actually because we were doing a service project together. We just got sick and tired of the introductory questions that you’re always being asked freshman year like “where are you from?” or “what’s your major” or “what dorm are you living in?”. You know, when you’re doing a service project with people, and you’re side by side doing some sort of task with them, you wind up asking each other sincere and genuine questions, drifting away from the introductory questions to questions more along the lines to “what’s your life story?”, and you wind up creating a really strong bond.

When you get down to it, I think we were all seeking relationships that went deeper. It had more to do with a universal humanity that is within people and authentic relationships with others. We were seeking an opportunity beyond ourselves, to not be defined by predetermined categories, and to seek adventure.

You were part of that late night dorm conversation that lead to STLF, now there are 32,000 STLF alumni. What are your thoughts on that journey?

Oh, wow. That is such a huge question! Obviously, I am in awe and I’m humbled. It’s surreal. When we first established STLF, we sought to establish a faceless and nameless organization, and that was possible because STLF was conceptualized pre-Facebook, pre-Youtube, and pre-2008 recession, so it was doable and allowed us many paths of possibility.

At the time of STLF’s founding, single leader organizations dominated the context. In order to be a leader of or within an organization, you had to have some kind of leadership experience beforehand. What we, as founders, sought to challenge was this singular way of leading by creating a program that builds ground-up leadership directly into the structure. I think the outcome has proven to be more progressive than we realized.

You’ve been out of STLF for a few years now. What advice or observations would you share with our alumni who are in their first couple years out of college about continuing to live STLF values and “Paying It Forward”?

It’s important to remind them that leadership is an action. There’s a creativity and a willingness to forge new paths in young people that, if not cultivated, can get lost, so continue cultivating that!

What is one of your most significant leadership moments participating in STLF?

There are, again, so many that I could draw from, but one that really sticks out in my mind is when we were in one of first board meetings. This was in 2007 or 2008, and we were all very really into the idea of STLF and were excited to get the board excited about our idea, as well.

So we pitched the idea, and were getting feedback and one board member looked me straight in the eyes and said, “The junkyard is littered with good ideas, you need more than a good idea.” That statement took me down a couple of pegs and really forced us all to evaluate how we could set STLF apart from all the other leadership organizations at the time that were doing similar things.

What is one of your most memorable moments seeing someone else develop as a leader participating in STLF?

It is always amazing to see the impact that one STLF program can have on a person, and one story that comes to mind is of Marika, a student who participated in a week long leadership camp for Minneapolis and St. Paul youth in 2007. At the time of the leadership camp, she was a sophomore in high school, and didn’t really care about doing well in school, and didn’t see herself going to college. I was able to reconnect with Marika in 2011, and learned that she was a junior at the University of Minnesota and attributed her success to that one, singular STLF camp she attended. I remember her saying that it is easy to tell someone what they should do, but to show someone what to do through hard work and dedication is truly life changing.

It was also the sheer amount of monumental, life-changing moments that happened to so many people during my time at STLF that really stands out.  For example, I think of roughly 16 people who either came out directly to me or to a bus during my time at STLF. I’ve had numerous people email me to tell me that STLF helped with their depression and suicidal thoughts. Even now, I still get texts from people who want to tell me about a situation where they used the skills that they gained during their STLF experience.

Wouldn’t it be cool if…

We were conditioned to cultivate the core tenets of humanity, and if we were beyond “firsts”. I’m running for Hennepin County Commissioner and if I were to win, I would be the youngest person and the first person of color to fill the seat.

You’re running for Hennepin County Commissioner, District 2. What does a county commissioner do?

Functionally, the County Board is the “City Council for the County”. The county commissioner position oversees transportation, healthcare, county roads, criminal justice, child protective services, affordable housing, property taxes, among other things. The position itself is much more visible in rural areas, and in more urban areas, people often go straight from city to state to federal politics and by bypass the county politics altogether.

Here’s a fun fact--Beyonce and Jay-Z’s combined net worth is HALF of what the county spends ANNUALLY. It’s the commissioner’s responsibility to spend that money to best benefit the people who inhabit my district and the greater Hennepin County.

I think I’m suited for this position because being on a collaborative board is something I grew to be comfortable with because of my experience with STLF and the leadership structure that exists within the organization.

How has your experience with STLF influenced your decision to run for office.

I have a good friend who says, “Conviction sells, emotion buys, and logic pays”.

From a conviction standpoint, STLF has instilled in me a belief that an individual has the ability to impact the future and challenge what’s thought to be impossible.

From an emotional standpoint, I feel really responsible for the message that I was projecting to the 22,000 students that came through STLF while I was a part of the organization. I was constantly telling them that in the face of unpopular decisions, we need to double down on our boldness. I had to ask myself if I was living out that message.  

From a logical standpoint, this position deals with work that is too important to be invisible. I want to bring more attention to the areas that the county commissioner oversees and to do that the work needs to be more visible, the processes needs to be transparent, and commissioners must be held accountable.


Each month we feature a STLF alum who is making a difference through service and leadership. Know an alum that should be featured? Let us know, email info@stlf.net.

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