Photo of Irene FernandoPhoto by Tony Nelson

Creating new pathways

Blazing a trail for others is her passion

Irene Fernando isn’t one for wasting time. A mere 10 days into her freshman year at the U, she co-founded Students Today, Leaders Forever (STLF)—a leadership nonprofit focused on service, relationships, and action. During her tenure with the program, she watched as more than 22,000 students took part, contributing 318,000 hours of service to communities throughout the nation.

While all this was happening, she wasn’t just idly standing by. She received a bachelor of business administration from the Carlson School of Management in 2007 and her work with STLF led to earning a MEd from the School of Social Work’s youth development leadership program in 2014. “I came to CEHD to pursue experiential learning models for young people,” she says. “I was feeling a need to make sure I was investing just as much time in the programmatic side of the nonprofit as well as the business side.”

Now, she is back at CEHD, pursuing a PhD in human resources development in the Department of Organizational Leadership, Policy, and Development. Her advisor is associate professor Dr. Joshua Collins.

As she looks upon her educational background, Fernando notices how each of her degree areas has deepened her structural understanding in different ways. “My undergraduate degree really helped me see systems and models and the ways in which things impact one another,” she says. “My master’s in education helped root me to the viewpoint of individuals and groups and the constructs presented to them.”

A big part of the PhD program is around what unique contributions can be made to the field. “In what ways are you challenging the existing school of thought and providing a different lens of how people can view the topic?” she asks. “What pathways can you create for others by doing this work? In academics, we talk about creating these unexplored paths. That’s what I have done in politics.”

In 2018, she took time off from her PhD studies to win a landslide election for a four-year term on the Hennepin County Board of Commissioners. She is the youngest woman elected to the seven-person board in its 166-year history. She also shares a title with Angela Conley as the first person of color ever elected to the board.

“My decision to run came from seeing who was really making decisions on my behalf,” Fernando says. “People who are impacted by decisions should have a voice at the table.” As she was looking at topics she cared about, she was surprised that they fell under the purview of an entity she knew little about. “It was kind of shocking to discover a layer of government I had not known even existed,” she says.

Minnesota’s 87 counties are all governed by boards of five to seven people. Hennepin County is divided into seven districts that each elect one commissioner. Fernando represents District 2, which extends from the City of Plymouth on the west to St. Anthony Village on the east.

She chairs the housing and redevelopment authority, serves as the vice chair for the public safety committee, and is working to support 2020 Census engagement. She is also back taking her PhD coursework. “For the last 10 years, CEHD has been the educational underpinning for me,” she says. “The unique story here is the degrees I pursued were reflected in my community and leadership roles.” This includes advocating for those who are marginalized or structurally disenfranchised, those impacted by decisions made by others, those who see themselves in the story of leadership in politics.

“I’m creating a pathway for people to see themselves as not only relevant but needed components, decision makers, shapers,” she says. “People who are really contributing and impacting the world for generations to come.”

Story by Kevin Moe | Winter 2020