The ivory white dice bounced off the classroom wall. “Snake eyes!” I exclaimed as I won another quarter. It was 3rd period Geometry and my friend and I were enveloped in a game of dice while our teacher was talking about theorems in the background. I graduated high school with a 2.1 GPA. I never took the SAT. I never thought I’d ever graduate college. Frankly, I didn’t care. While both my parents, who emigrated from Mexico had high aspirations for my future, I thought college was a waste of time, partly because I thought I wasn’t capable of graduating. Six months from finishing high school I met my now wife and eight months later we found out we were going to be parents. We were both 17. Thirteen years later, Shalee and I have four daughters and I’m now the Executive Director for a college access, education nonprofit tasked with supporting students from backgrounds in underrepresented backgrounds starting in middle school become the first in their families to graduate college. An ironic outcome for someone whose college aspirations at one time were absent. During those internment years, I underwent a defying transformation and my summer at Andover as an intern with IRT dramatically shaped my pathway to graduate college, attain a master’s degree and lead an education nonprofit in the fight for educational equity.
The cool bay area breeze combed my hair as I walked to check the mailbox. We’d been in Berkeley for eight months finishing my junior year, the prospects of post-graduation looming in my mind. We were 21 years old, a family of five with two 1 year old twins and a 3 year old toddler and no idea what the next few years would entail. Shalee and I were the first in our families to attend college, getting to a 4-year university was challenging in itself, so graduate school was an even more elusive and unknown next step. During my undergraduate studies, I came to realize that I wanted to dedicate my life to education, more specifically I aspired to support other students like myself who struggled in school. I turned the mailbox key, discarded the ads and one envelope caught my attention. I could feel my stomach sink, warmth fill my face and my hands tremble holding a letter addressed by Phillips Academy Andover; the moment I realized I was accepted as a summer intern was the moment that I knew my eventual journey as an educator was solidified.
Sitting on the grass by Samuel Philips Hall, the humid summer air enveloping me as I was enveloped in one of our assigned readings preparing for the next day of seminar. The reader looking back at me like Mt. Everest ready to be climbed, the dread I felt thinking it wasn’t possible that I could get through this program in less than a month; but I did, and many had before and since. Besides, the lack of sleep, overwhelming feeling that never went away, thinking that I was chosen by mistake and would be discovered soon, a sense that this experience was all a dream and holding onto the idea that it was all for some future reason. My summer as an IRT intern dragged me outside of my sense of self, forcing me to realize that I belonged- that I was capable. I belonged in graduate school, I was capable of being a college graduate. I belonged in spaces of edification, I was capable of critical inquiry. I belonged and I was capable.
Alex Serna is an Executive Director for Breakthrough San Juan Capistrano, an education nonprofit with the mission to support students become the first in their families to graduate college. He has B.A in American Studies from UC Berkeley and a master’s degree in education from UCLA. He’s a 2017 New Leaders Council, Los Angeles fellow currently serving on the Millennial Commission on Education as a Senior Fellow. His thoughts on college access have been published in the Washington Post, The Hill, The Hechinger Report, Diverse Issues in Higher Education, NACAC Journal of College Admissions and the New Leader Journal of Generational Policy and Politics.