kenia hernandez cueto
Kenia Hernandez Cueto (Ph.D. ’17) speaks at Friendly Center’s 100th birthday celebration on April 8, which was honored as Friendly Center Day by the City of Orange.

Chapman Alumna Comes Full Circle as Friendly Center CEO As the Orange nonprofit celebrates its 100th anniversary, Kenia Hernandez Cueto (Ph.D. ’17) hopes to build an even stronger partnership with Chapman University.

A cornerstone of the Orange community since 1924, Friendly Center is celebrating its 100th year of service by looking forward to the next 100 years. Leading the way is new Friendly Center CEO Kenia Hernandez Cueto, a Chapman University alumna who earned her Ph.D. in education in 2017.

Born and raised in Orange County by immigrant parents, Cueto knows firsthand the difference a community-based organization like Friendly Center can make in the lives of students and families.

“As a child, I benefited from services provided by nonprofits like Friendly Center. Reflecting on this, I find myself in a full circle moment,” she shared. Her journey from facing academic challenges as a student to conducting scholarly research and gaining professional experience in education and community service has been transformative. “With my background and personal connection to the challenges faced by underserved communities, joining this nonprofit was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. It’s a wonderful organization, and everything just aligned perfectly for me to take on this role.”

Friendly Center was started by a men’s group from a multi-denominational Bible study group who wanted to help migrant workers in the citrus fields in the City of Orange. Since its founding, the center has grown to provide food and basic needs, family support and education throughout Orange County.

Friendly Center’s new pivot in career technical education (CTE) lies at the heart of the center’s plans for the future, with programs that address the urgent need for stability, opportunity and hope, says Cueto. This summer, the center will offer a drone technology boot camp in partnership with Fullerton College to Richland High School’s CTE and Foster youth students. The Friendly Center is also developing partnerships to offer education in areas such as AI, financial literacy and entrepreneurship.

“We want to align ourselves with our local schools to see how we can all work together to support our community and the workforce,” she says, adding that Chapman has a long history of partnering with the center through internships, tutoring programs, donations and funding. She hopes to develop deeper relationships with the university’s schools and colleges over the next few months, offering opportunities for research and hands-on learning.

“We are engaged in a reciprocal partnership with students and our community,” she said. “It’s all about mutual support and working together to transform lives and our community. I love that we’re supporting each other and I am grateful.”

As a doctoral student at Chapman, Cueto worked on research with professors Anaida Colon-Muniz, Ed.D., Miguel Zavala, Ph.D., and Suzanne SooHoo, Ph.D. on a project with Padres Unidos, an Orange County nonprofit that serves to educate parents to become leaders within their own community. Cueto says the experience was cathartic. “It’s my community,” she said. “This is where I grew up. My parents were immigrants with minimal education … Given the chance, my mother would have taken the opportunity in a heartbeat.”

With Padres Unidos, the Chapman team created a Spanish-language curriculum for the parents, who were also given the opportunity to become students at Chapman, with full access to the library and other resources on campus. In her dissertation, which focused on the partnerships between a university and the community, Cueto was able to show how transformative the experience of being on a college campus was for those students and how institutions of higher education could benefit from building partnerships such as these.

In her new role at Friendly Center, Cueto hopes that she can continue to build on partnerships between Chapman and the community. “I’m open to collaborating on research projects with any department or school,” she said. “I’m from Chapman. I’ve done research with Chapman. I know the quality of work that Chapman professors and students produce … I want Friendly Center to be there for Chapman students as much as Chapman is there for us.”

Read more about what Chapman University Alumni are up to on our Class Notes page — and submit your own life updates for a chance to be featured!


Staci Dumoski

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