Cristian Hinojosa ’00 once stuck to a fixed itinerary of success: go to prep school, get a great class ranking to get into a great college, then excel there to land the highest-paying job.
“I approached life from a kind of performance standpoint in order to achieve certain milestones,” he says. “But a lot of those milestones were set by the constructs of the system, not the constructs of my heart.”
For some time, Hinojosa performed as expected: summer internships with Bank of America in his native Dallas, then a job with Banc of America Securities in New York. “It kind of feeds your ego, because you’re making $100,000 at 21 years of age and get $100 a day for meals,” he recalls. “But at about the six-month mark I remember thinking, ‘Oh, crap, what did I get into?’”
Maybe homesickness was the snag, he reasoned, so he moved back to Dallas to work at an investment platform, which he didn’t like, and then at a boutique bank. The third job was hardly the charm: “I’ve tried switching around the scenery three times now, and I’m getting progressively more and more miserable.”
He found himself drinking too much after work, using his nights to distract from his days. “The best way I can describe it is: I felt spiritually hollow. I didn’t feel like what I was doing was being of service to anyone.”
Hinojosa doesn’t use that word—service—lightly. In high school in Texas, he’d tutored children, helped elders, volunteered at a shelter for the homeless. “It fed your soul,” he says. At Amherst, he became a volunteer at the North Amherst Fire Station, living there his senior year with other firefighters drawn from the Five Colleges. Amherst magazine even ran a story about him (“Sirens’ Song,” Winter 2000). In the photos taken at the firehouse, he looks elated. On campus, Hinojosa was active in the Latinx community and was on the ski team. Catherine Sanderson, the Manwell Family Professor in Life Sciences, became his adviser.
Now sprint ahead to 2018. Hinojosa had come to hear Sanderson give a talk, for the Dallas Amherst Club, about her new book, The Positive Shift: Mastering Mindset to Improve Happiness, Health, and Longevity (read an excerpt). One of its takeaways is that mindfully switching jobs, even fields, can fuel happiness. At the event, Hinojosa told her he’d done just that—back in 2005, he’d signed on with the Dallas Fire Department. “I took a big, big pay cut,” he says. “Yet my sense of happiness went through the roof.”
CBS happened to reach out to Sanderson a week after her Dallas trip. They were doing a segment called “Can Money Buy Happiness?,” and the producers asked if she had a concrete example to illustrate her ideas. She offered Hinojosa’s name. On air, when the reporter asks Sanderson what she thinks of her former student’s choice, she exclaims, “I love it!” Sanderson later put this in context: “Doing things we find meaningful is extraordinarily predictive in finding happiness. This can be a tough sell at Amherst, though, where the ideas of status and prestige resonate. But my book is exactly Cristian’s message.”
As a firefighter and paramedic, Capt. Hinojosa now oversees his own crew: On a 24-hour shift, they average about 10 runs, responding to everything from multiple-alarm fires to health emergencies. “I’ve seen some of the tragedy of the human condition, and that makes you look at life differently,” he says. “I’ve also delivered babies, which is super cool.” Speaking of babies, Hinojosa and his ex-wife co-parent their two boys, Max, 5, and Will, 2, who inspired his blog, Two Alarm Dad.
In the last 14 years, he has gotten a master’s in public administration from the University of Texas at Arlington and served as president of the city’s Hispanic Firefighters Association. It’s a gratifying upward trajectory, but Hinojosa hasn’t hidden the impact of his old distress: “I don’t mind sharing that today I am in recovery, and have found even more service opportunities as a peer support leader within the department to help first responders, who have, incidentally, higher rates of alcohol abuse and suicide.”
He hopes to keep climbing in the Dallas Fire Department. Hinojosa now fills in as acting battalion chief when needed, overseeing eight fire stations, and his business background may yet come in handy. After all, he says, “the fire chief is pretty much the CEO of a 2,000-employee corporation that has a quarter-billion-dollar operating budget.” Hinojosa says he’s never doubted his huge occupational do-over. “Being a firefighter is completely fulfilling professionally, personally, spiritually. I always say I won the lottery when it comes to jobs.”
Whittemore is Amherst magazine’s senior writer.