Alumni Q&A with Deneen Hernandez, ‘85
Most Washingtonians you meet are stereotypical politicos - future lawmakers, policy experts and advocacy leaders.
The Washington Center supplies the D.C. market with a big chunk of that talent, but it also contributes to a host of other critical and in-demand fields, outside of the policy arena. One of them happens to be one of the most distinguished forensic scientists in the business.
Deneen Hernandez ‘85 is an enrolled member of the Seneca Nation of Indians from the Cattaraugus Reservation in Western New York and has been in law enforcement for approximately 28 years. She is a Forensic Examiner for the Federal Bureau of Investigation Laboratory Division in the Cryptanalysis and Racketeering Records Unit in Quantico, VA - examining suspected gambling records and conducting forensic examinations on those documents to ascertain if they qualify as illicit gambling records. Hernandez is also an Adjunct criminal justice professor, a New York Department of Criminal Justice Services certified instructor and a certified Instructor for the FBI.
We sat down with Hernandez for an in depth look at her long career, what she’s learned from being in the industry for so many years and her advice for students.
How did you end up in the forensics field? Was there a particular experience that pulled you in this direction?
Hernandez: I ended up in forensics actually through a comedy of errors. At least that’s what I call it. I think in 1977, my mom and dad were finishing college at Jamestown Community College in Jamestown, NY. My mom was a studying going through the Erie County Sheriff’s Academy. So I helped her study. I was learning this stuff when I was 12. My dad, due to injury had to change careers. He worked at Bethlehem Steel and was injured. So, he took up nursing. Sometimes, I’d go to JCC with them for classes. Call me a geek, but I thought it was cool. I would help my mom study for her police exams and attend anatomy and physiology with my dad. Fast forward 40 years, and look where I am!
Of course you have to also pay your dues. So following graduation from high school to 1999, I did. Academy after academy, going from the tribal police department, to the Erie County Sheriff, then the Drug Enforcement Administration, the National Indian Gaming Commission and finally the FBI.
What is one thing most people probably don’t know about forensic examiners and the work you do?
Hernandez: The one thing that most people probably don’t know about FE’s is that we’re not all 6 ft, blonde, wear white suits or stilettos to a crime scene! No seriously, I thank Jerry Bruckheimer for making my job look sexy.
I think the one thing that the public doesn’t know is how scrutinized our profession is. Criticism can come from anyone in the criminal justice system for various reasons and from the public. We have to be tough skinned. We also have to stay current in our discipline. Reading articles, keeping up with current trends and staying checked into the industry is really important.
Talk a little bit about your time at TWC and how it impacted you both personally and professionally.
Hernandez: I had a fantastic time with TWC. I think it was an enriching adventure. I was assigned to the Department of Interior, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Judicial Services Branch. Our Branch handled all Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) courts in Indian Country. Allen Davis, Turtle Mountain Chippewa was my supervisor and mentor. He taught me so much. I never knew that I would put most of that knowledge to use in my adult life. I met so many people Senators, Congressmen, Directors, Lawyers and tribal chairmen/women and it paid dividends for me.
We lived in an apartment complex on 14th St., NW. We walked everywhere and saw everything. Each person doing an internship would find something interesting to do every weekend. There was no down time. We spend the holidays together and cooked meals like they were our own families. I was very sad when it had to come to an end. I vowed on the plane ride home that I was coming back! And I did.
You’re quite involved with sharing your expertise throughout the forensics field, including some great work you do with the American Indian Science and Engineering Society. What’s on the horizon for American Indian’s in this field and other STEM professions? Are there any particular challenges?
Hernandez: Following my presentations at the AISES conference, I was so surprised how intrigued everyone was. In general, STEM professions for Native Americans are quite robust in recruiting, maintaining and sharing information about careers. However, one has to leap. Sometimes it can be difficult to leave the comfort of home on the reservations and family ties for a new direction. However, despite being off the reservation to pursue one’s career, everyone carries their home, family ties and spirituality with them. The Creator knows that you have dreams and sometimes he reminds us who is in charge. If an opportunity can’t be acted on, when one wants, maybe he telling us to get more experience, or the time’s not right, you need to be stronger. I have felt that way while in my career. I feel like I’m ready and then – nothing. I say ok, maybe it wasn’t time or maybe I need another skill. Maybe not the right opportunity for me? It doesn’t mean I’ve failed. I just need to adjust my GPS and choose a different route. Sometimes the road is difficult, the preverbal less traveled. Well, let’s go off-roading! If you can’t off road, then grab a cup of coffee for the trip.
If you had to give one piece of advice to someone who wants to break into this field, what would it be?
Hernandez: My advice is to take all of the opportunities presented to you. If they are few, then make some for yourself. Learn everything you can about the discipline you choose. And lastly, when you get a chance, give back. Somebody’s probably looking at you saying, “I want to do that too.”