Growing up in Rialto, Serena Straka ’01 never discounted the importance of higher education despite her family’s unfamiliarity with it. Her mother and father saw to that.
Straka, who is now a senior manager of training with California Collaborative for Educational Excellence, which advises and supports school districts in meeting their goals set forth in their respective Local Control Accountability Plans, says her parents influenced her path to college in complementary ways.
“My mom was more of the day-to-day ‘These are the expectations. You need to get your homework done,’ Straka recalls. “Earning bad grades was not an option. My dad, he’s the one who from an early age always asked me, ‘What college are you going to? You are going to college, right?’ He’s more the one who planted the seed in my head.”
They were ambitious expectations of a first-generation college-student-to-be. Straka seized on the possibilities. In middle school, she took part in Upward Bound, a federal program in which promising low-income and first-generation college students get extra academic help to improve their chances for success in college.
When financial aid workshops were offered in high school, Straka and her mom made sure they attended.
“But as far as navigating the system and figuring out how I apply to colleges, for example, I didn’t have anybody holding my hand and walking that path with me,” she says. “I kind of picked up pieces as I went.”
Straka applied to U of R because a friend, Adrienne Ayala (Hernandez) ’00, was attending the University and had provided an opportunity for Straka to visit the campus during her senior year. Redlands was far enough away from home, but not too far. She gained admission and later received the Class of 1937 Endowed Scholarship—made possible by fundraising efforts from that class culminating in its 60th reunion. Scholarship recipients are chosen for academic performance and community involvement.
Seizing on new opportunities at the U of R, she majored in liberal studies and competed on the University’s inaugural lacrosse team. Straka also was team manager for the women’s softball team during her freshman year. With classmates, she restarted a sorority, Alpha Xi Omicron.
“My university experience definitely allowed me to grow and come into myself,” she says. “I realized that I can manage all of this. I can keep up my grades. It opened opportunities. I had the initiative to push myself and experiment and see what would happen without fear. I didn’t have a fear of not succeeding.”
Today, Straka, who lives in Highland, is urging her own two children to prepare for college and is back at U of R, once again stretching her limits. This time she’s pursuing a doctorate in education at U of R’s School of Education, with Professor Adriana Alvarado as her advisor, pursuing research that examines inequities in college access and ways to increase participation in college preparation planning among underrepresented groups.
In one of her previous positions, Straka was an assistant principal at a middle school in the Rialto Unified School District. Her school had initiated “A–G” assemblies for eighth grade students and was embracing and developing a college-going culture. (A–G subject requirements are specific courses high school students need to complete in order to be eligible for the University of California and California State University system.) The requirements are designed to ensure that high school graduates enter college having obtained a body of general knowledge.
“We were really trying to get our eighth-graders on board with understanding what they need for college when they got into high school,” Straka says, noting that not all of her interactions were academic in nature. “I mentored students on a regular basis at the site. Some of them had the grades and they had the attendance, but they didn’t know how to get to college.
“It was a matter of having conversations with them, and telling them, ‘You can do this,’” she adds. “With others it was, ‘Can we stay out of trouble today?’”
Straka stressed the importance of financial aid to students who want to attend college but fear they can’t afford the cost. She urged them not to succumb to sticker shock.
She says, “I would tell them, ‘Money is available for students who are ready to go to college.’”
Read more about U of R’s first-generation students and programs.