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Family and friends mourn Cal State Long Beach student killed in Compton—'He was the kind of student every faculty member hopes for'

On a simple black stage at Cal State Long Beach, friends, family and faculty poured out their love and respect for 21-year-old sociology student Estephan Hernandez, who was fatally shot outside his West Compton home on Sept. 28. 

With wavering voices and outright tears, the speakers stood under a huge smiling photo of Hernandez as they tried to describe his academic achievements and easygoing charm. In the audience on Oct. 6, friends and family quietly hugged each other or held their heads, trying to control their grief. 

“Estephan was the kind of student every faculty member hopes for,” said Kris Zentgraf, chairwoman of the Department of Sociology, from which Hernandez was scheduled to receive his bachelor’s degree in the spring. 

“He was known to his faculty members for his infectious smile, his genuine and polite manner and his commitment to working with and helping other students," Zentgraf said. 

"He was an excellent student with a stellar academic record, but the kind of student who... while often quiet, when he did speak, he did so with a knowledge and insight that was right on point." 

Professor Jeff Davis choked back sobs as he described Hernandez’s intelligence and skill at not just answering questions, “but knowing what questions to ask. ... He was always looking for solutions to difficult problems.”

Davis noted how professors get to know and love their students through the conversations they share. 

When he heard that Hernandez had been killed, Davis said, “I thought of all the conversations we’d had, the conversations we didn’t have and now the ones we can’t have. Estephan will not leave our hearts; he will become part of the conversation we have with our future students to help them become more motivated.”

After the service, Hernandez’s cousin Sarah Escalona said the family always knew Hernandez would go to college and excel. “He was a straight 'A' student all of his life,” she said.  

The surprise was that he didn’t follow her path into business studies at Cal State Long Beach. Early on, she said, he told his older cousin that he would study business too. 

“At first he saw school as a way to find a good-paying job and support his family,” she said. “But then he changed. ... As a freshman, he was exposed to political science and sociology classes and he became aware of social justice and community service. He came to see people and justice as more valuable than business and money.”

Escalona said she used to tease him about going into sociology, asking “How are you going to make a living?” He seemed to have taken that to heart, she said, because in addition to going to school he was working at a CVS Pharmacy, training to become a pharmaceutical technician. 

In addition, she said, Hernandez helped his parents with his two younger siblings, taking them to activities and mentoring them in school. 

Escalona said she urged Hernandez to live on campus because it would be easier for him as a student, but he refused. He was close to his siblings, she said, and he wanted to live at home.

His family is devastated, not just to lose him, she said, but by the ignorant judgments of the outside world that Hernandez was trying to fight against. 

“Just like living in Compton,” she said, “and all the stereotypes and perceptions that come with living in that zip code, that all you can be is a criminal or a thug. His parents worked so hard that their son not be another statistic.” 

The night he died, Hernandez had finally come home after a day of work and school, and had gone out to his car for five or 10 minutes, she said — “Five minutes!” — and then he was gone, shot by someone in a passing car as he sat talking to a friend. 

“It’s just shocking to all of us. We can’t think of a motive, why someone would do that,” she said. “But his parents want people to know he was more than a statistic. He was a kind, intelligent, hardworking man, not just another body bag that they take away.” 

A fundraising site has been set up to help Hernandez’s family with expenses. 

Anyone with information about the shooting should call the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Homicide Bureau at (323) 890-5500. Those wishing to remain anonymous should call Crime Stoppers at (800) 222-8477.  

Photos: At top, Ricky and Sujey Hernandez, left and Sarah Escalona, right, talk to a well-wisher after the memorial for their son and cousin Estephan Hernandez, a Cal State Long Beach senior who was shot and killed near his family's Compton home on Sept. 28. By Jeanette Marantos for The Times.  Above, Estephan Hernandez smiles in a photo provided by his family. 

Contact the Homicide Report. Follow @latimeshomicide on Twitter.

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