Florina Fernandez remembers playing school as a child with her older brother and younger sister — she always chose to be the teacher. In some ways, not much has changed.

The first person in her family to graduate from a university, Fernandez, 24, will celebrate earning her bachelor’s degree in English education at Fresno State on May 18. She plans to teach high school English and coach cheer or softball after finishing her credential program next year.

“The Central Valley has a shortage of English teachers and it is a critical area to contribute to,” said Alison Mandaville, associate professor of English and coordinator of English education and teacher credentialing programs at Fresno State. “We especially need language arts instructors. Students cannot be successful in school if they don’t have strong literary skills.”

As a youngster, Fernandez loved reading and writing. Her mother always encouraged her to write down her feelings and eventually Fernandez used this as an outlet. She wrote poems and developed an interest in creative writing. She was also athletic, competing in cheer for nine years and playing softball all four years she attended Clovis East High School.

Meanwhile, Fernandez’s home life changed swiftly and dramatically during her adolescent years. She said her parents struggled with addiction, and during the summer after she finished eighth grade she and her siblings went into foster care. They lived with her aunt, before being reunited with their father her sophomore year in high school.

Although she wanted to go to college, Fernandez said she couldn’t afford it and took a year and a half off after graduating high school. She moved to San Luis Obispo and eventually enrolled at Cuesta Community College. A year later, she moved back to Fresno to be near family.

Not knowing how to pay for tuition at Fresno State, and not qualifying for financial aid, she joined the Air National Guard, serving for six years with the 144th fighter wing. Every school break, she was in the fighter wing working to make money. She said she was given the choice of the job she wanted there, and she remembered her mom’s advice that she should not have to rely on a man or anyone else. So, despite never before working with tools, Fernandez chose to be a structural maintenance mechanic.

Working in a male-dominated job, Fernandez said she developed thick skin. She felt like she was learning a foreign language while learning technical terms and the names of drills and tools she used on the F15 fighter jets.

Learning integrity and discipline in the guard, Fernandez saw the job as an opportunity to keep herself out of trouble. “I am proud of where I am based on what I’ve gone through,” Fernandez said.

While in school, Fernandez has been a cheer coach at Tioga Middle School for three years through the Teaching Fellows Partnership Program at Fresno State. Through sports, she learned how to be a team player and to push herself. In two years, she received her blue belt in jujitsu. She trains daily and hopes to receive her black belt.

“What I especially appreciate about Flo (as she’s commonly known) is her commitment to learning, which includes taking risks and receiving guidance,” said Ruth Jenkins, an English professor at Fresno State. “That commitment shows in the integrity that she brings to her education.”

One day while scrolling through Facebook, Fernandez said she came across a quote that has stuck with her. It said, “Be who you needed when you were young,” she said. “I hope to help children who may be in a situation like me.”

Mandaville, the associate professor of English, said Fernandez will be in a prime position to help.

“Whether they are immigrants, military kids or students who move around a lot, Flo can understand where students are coming from,” Mandaville said. “She is exactly the kind of student we want to go on and be a teacher.”