Student Recognized for Inclusive Excellence Efforts
By Bri Phillips
Community is the first word that comes to mind when Paula Serrano reflects on what got her through her academic career.
Navigating higher education felt intimidating at times for Serrano, a first-generation college student. She worried that she didn’t belong, and often suffered from imposter syndrome.
“There have been moments where I didn’t think I could continue being in college,” said Serrano, a double major in economics and global studies. “My family has been very understanding, and they always encourage me. If I ever needed help, they were there for me. I think that one of the comforting parts about it is knowing that I did have a solid support system and they just really wanted me to graduate.”
Serrano’s parents have always encouraged her to follow her interests, and they understood how important it was for her to attend college.
“As long as my mom saw a book in my hands as a child, she thought I was going to end up OK,” Serrano said. “My mom's highest level of education was middle school and my dad’s was elementary school. My parents told me to just graduate high school, and once you get your high school degree, you’ll have something. But they always wanted me to keep learning and pursue higher ed as well.”
Serrano’s efforts continue to pay off, and she was recognized as Cal State San Marcos’ 2023-24 recipient of the President’s Student Champion Award for Inclusive Excellence at the annual All Peoples Luncheon on Oct. 19.
“It still hasn't even hit me that I won,” said Serrano, who was lauded for being an advocate for undocumented and mixed-status students. “I just do what I do because I love it and I want to help.”
In high school, Serrano was in the College Assistance Migrant Program (CAMP), which helped her with her sense of belonging and feelings of imposter syndrome. Serrano became a peer mentor for CAMP at CSUSM in 2020 because she wanted to give back and help students feel like they can succeed on a college campus.
“I made some really meaningful friends in CAMP,” Serrano said. “It was a great community for me to be in on campus, especially because I find it difficult to open up sometimes.”
Serrano was presented with an opportunity to help undocumented and mixed-status students as an ambassador in the Dreamer Resource Office (DRO) in 2021.
“I connect with the DRO because I do come from an immigrant mixed-status background,” Serrano said. “For the longest time, I didn't feel like I had a place where I could belong. I didn't know we had a center like this on campus. The atmosphere in the office made me feel so safe. It was so welcoming. There is no judgment whatsoever. I think for me, the hardest part is finding a place where people can understand you and acknowledge your experience.”
Serrano has worked in the DRO for over two years. She currently serves as a DRO representative for the President’s Inclusive Excellence Advisory Council, where she advocates for the undocumented community.
Serrano’s impact goes beyond campus. She was also a recipient of the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship and had the opportunity in 2021 to study abroad in South Korea and help English professors in a language and cultural exchange.
After graduating next spring, Serrano plans to take a gap year before continuing to fulfill her love of learning by pursuing a Ph.D.
“I’m finding my way as I go,” Serrano said. “I’m just really grateful to have been nominated and to have been able to participate in the organizations that I have. It feels very unreal because I just had a lot of fun doing what I'm passionate about. I'm just really grateful more than anything.”
Eric Breier, Public Affairs Specialist
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