It is not surprising that Alejandra Serna is so passionate about her research project, “A Walk in Her Shoes: How Women of Color Navigate a Predominately White Institution.”
After all, the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire senior — a first-generation Mexican American who grew up in a suburb of Chicago — has been walking in those very shoes the last four years.
“Coming to Eau Claire was a big culture shock to me,” says Serna, who is from Evergreen Park, Illinois. “I grew up surrounded by so much diversity and culture. Coming here really challenged me emotionally and mentally.”
Through her research, she is collecting qualitative data from students of color, specifically Black and Latina women, and exploring how they navigate barriers and overcome difficulties on campus.
By documenting and analyzing their experiences, Serna is making sure women of color are seen and heard as UW-Eau Claire continues its efforts to make the campus more diverse and inclusive.
Serna collects and analyzes the women’s testimonies, looking for ways the campus can make Latina and Black women more comfortable and give them more resources so they can succeed at UW-Eau Claire.
“This is very close to my heart; my research is very personal to me,” Serna says, noting that she faced many challenges and obstacles as a Latina studying at UW-Eau Claire. “Part of me felt that it’s my responsibility as a graduating senior to speak on my experiences through other women’s voices.”
A McNair Scholar
Serna began her research after being accepted into the Ronald E. McNair program, a national program that aims to increase the number of students from underrepresented populations who pursue graduate degrees. McNair Scholars are matched with mentors and together they work on research for two years.
McNair Scholars are given the unique opportunity to design their own research agenda, says Dr. José Alvergue, an associate professor of English and Serna’s research mentor.
Serna, he says, is making the most of that opportunity, giving visibility to women of color whose voices are not always heard on campus.
“I admire the way Alejandra is making an important intervention that underscores the existence of women of color on our campus,” Alvergue says. “Hers is an intervention that can serve to affirm otherwise overwritten experiences of many of our students — particularly students we, as an institution, often publicly vow to attract.”
Serna’s work models the kind of interventions UW-Eau Claire should make as an institution to learn about its students and the communities they come from, including the communities we are indebted to, Alvergue says.
“This kind of research, which allows participants to give voice to their realities and experiences with our resources and offices, benefits everyone,” Alvergue says. “We all rely on the unique spaces that make up our university. But it is not always possible to get the whole picture of how they are all working together to create a welcoming environment for our students, no matter who they are. So, listening to their stories, and making sense of those stories with a mind toward resource administration is vital.”
By choosing this research project, Serna is stating that her experiences and the experiences of others in her situation provide a valuable narrative of the state of higher education, Alvergue says.
Serna is part of a growing wave of humanities scholars who focus on the voices and realities of their subjects, and who are resolving the inconsistencies in our culture, which demands expertise and diversity, but refuses to value investing in the institutions of higher education where that expertise is acquired and diversity is actualized, Alvergue says.
“This is the kind of knowledge that puts truth to organizing and administering resources,” Alvergue says. “Rather than relying on empty rhetoric to impress, we can actualize transformative interactions by understanding student and community needs. And that is what Alejandra’s project is doing.”
While her research focuses on students of color at UW-Eau Claire, their experiences are similar to the struggles many women of color face in their daily lives, Serna says.
“Researching how students of color struggle tremendously while attending a predominately white institution reminds me a lot of how people of color struggle in the real world,” Serna says. “It reminds me that low-income communities have disadvantages and a lack of resources they need to succeed.”
Serna — who will graduate in spring 2021 with a business administration major, a finance minor and certificates in economics of global issues and equity, diversity and inclusivity — plans to use the knowledge she’s gaining at UW-Eau Claire to help those struggling communities.
Her goal, she says, is to assist people in low-income and underrepresented communities become more financially literate and to help them understand complex financial situations.
Her interest in financial literacy is rooted in her own experiences growing up in a large family that had few resources, Serna says.
“As a first-generation Mexican American, I grew up around a lot of underrepresented minorities who were struggling financially,” Serna says, adding that her parents speak only Spanish. “I witnessed how much of a struggle surviving was for a lot of people, especially people who didn’t speak English. I learned at a young age the importance of being financially responsible.”
Serna also saw how hard it is for people living in poverty to access the resources they need to become more financially literate.
“I want to learn as much as I can about financial literacy so I can help those in need,” Serna says. “I want to put myself in a position where people can come to me for small things like filing taxes or bigger things like applying for credit or applying for a mortgage loan. Those might sound like small things but to people in underrepresented communities, they are huge milestones that not a lot of people can access.”
Discovering her passion
While Serna came to UW-Eau Claire without a major, she quickly found herself drawn to business classes, especially those involving finance and economics.
“It’s been challenging but in a good way,” Serna says of her academic path. “I’m learning about finance and accounting and investments, all terms I knew nothing about before coming to college. I’m also taking amazing classes that are enhancing my communication and presentation skills.”
She also is gaining experience in the financial industry in her job as a teller at a U.S. Bank branch in Eau Claire. She’s learning about loans, credit cards and savings accounts, all things she can share with her family and others to build their financial literacy skills, she says.
Her job also is helping her see how much she has to offer future employers, including her Spanish language skills, Serna says. As the branch’s only Spanish-speaking employee, Serna assists customers who speak no or little English.
“The relief I see in those customers when they find out I speak Spanish is indescribable,” Serna says. “To me, it’s a privilege to help them. As soon as I was old enough to communicate in English, I was verbally translating for my parents everywhere we went, so it is something I’ve been doing all my life.”
U.S. Bank is fortunate to have Serna working there, says Stephanie Olson, the branch manager and Serna’s supervisor.
“Alejandra brings a positive attitude every day,” Olson says. “She is efficient and accurate, which helps create confidence with U.S. Bank customers.”
Serna’s Spanish-language skills are especially valuable since the bank has a growing number of customers who speak only Spanish, Olson says. With Serna there, the bank can offer Spanish-speaking customers additional services that will help to make them more financially secure.
“It has helped our Spanish-speaking customers feel more comfortable because they are reflected in our staff and they can communicate their needs with more clarity,” Olson says. “It also helps her team answer questions that may have been missed before. To have the ability to speak a second language is a strong asset to have in banking.”
Finding her voice
In addition to finding her place in the College of Business, Serna also found her voice on campus as an advocate for equity, diversity and inclusivity.
She is the Latinx events coordinator intern for the university’s Office of Multicultural Affairs, is active in the Latinx Student Association and has participated in the Civil Rights Pilgrimage, all experiences that have added value to her college education.
When UW-Eau Claire unveiled its new EDI certificate program this fall, Serna enrolled, seeing it as an opportunity to grow her own understanding, help others to become more culturally competent and build connections across campus.
“This is an opportunity for everyone to hear and learn from students of color and to learn about our experiences,” Serna says of the certificate program. “Taking time to explore critical and sensitive topics can bring our campus community closer, and that’s something I want to be part of.”
Serna, who struggled her first two years of college, hopes her efforts around EDI will make it easier for future students of color to feel supported and welcome on campus.
The second-youngest of eight children and the first in her family to go to college, Serna says it was hard to leave her family, especially since she had no one to guide her as she began her college journey.
“Family means everything to me,” Serna says. “Leaving home to pursue a college degree is extremely uncommon in a traditional Mexican home, so I was breaking traditions. My parents were opposed to me moving to Wisconsin, but I came anyway because I knew it would be worth it for my future.”
As a first-generation college student, she had no one close to her to help her navigate the often-complicated world of higher education. Everything from applying for admission and financial aid to submitting her ACT scores was unfamiliar and challenging, she says.
“Nobody in my family is aware of how much of a struggle it is to be a college student and how mentally draining it is to succeed,” Serna says. “During my first two years here, I’d drive five hours home because I was so homesick and unhappy. It was not until my junior year that I came to really appreciate UW-Eau Claire.
“Now, I’m thankful for every opportunity I’ve had here, whether it made me sad or enlightened, because everything I have been through has made me who I am today.”
As she looks ahead to her spring graduation and the start of her professional career, Serna is eager to begin sharing all that she’s learned with her family and community.
She hopes to be a resource for younger family members who are considering college as well as for friends and family who need financial guidance, Serna says.
“My primary reason for working hard in college is to eventually give back all the knowledge I’ve learned to others, whether it’s to younger generations or adults who want to educate themselves on financial literacy,” Serna says. “I hope to truly impact others in need.”