First Gen: Inspiring Stories Of MBAs Who Beat The Odds

Yasmin Serrato-Muñoz

The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania

Class: 2020

Hometown: Orlando, FL

Fun Fact About Yourself: I watched all the Star Wars movies in a day in order to understand what the developers at my job would joke about. I immediately became a fan.  

Undergraduate School and Major: Georgetown University; B.S. in Science, Technology, and International Affairs

Most Recent Employer and Job Title: Accenture Federal Services, IT Strategy Consultant

What did your parents do for a living? My dad is a kitchen manager and my mom is a restaurant cook.

What was the highest level of education achieved by your mother and your

father? My dad has a high school diploma. My mom attended some high school in Mexico but did not graduate.

Which of your family members is your biggest inspiration? Why? My mother is my biggest inspiration because she embodies scrappiness and perseverance. My family and I became homeless when I was 12 years old. To keep us away from a homeless shelter, my parents moved us into a motel room. For months, I witnessed my mother rise at 4 a.m. and work long hours. Every day she laced up her shoes and did not complain.  She always remained positive and inspired me to do well in school in order to make her proud.

What was the moment that led you to decide to pursue higher education? College was always an expectation in my family. It was seen as a way out of poverty and a path towards the American dream. However, college did not become a concrete goal for me until I was 12 and experienced homelessness and poverty. Even though I was young, I saw the contrast between people who had an education and those who did not. I decided that if I wanted to help my family, I needed to go to college because it opened doors to opportunities.

What was your biggest worry before going for your undergraduate degree? I was worried about applying and paying for college. No one in my family had ever applied to college, so I had to figure out the application process along the way. I reached out to teachers and they taught me how to ask for a recommendation and how to communicate with schools about fee waivers. During high school, I also worked twenty hours per week, played varsity sports, and took on a rigorous course load in the hopes of earning a scholarship.  When it came time to submit applications, I applied to 16 schools and prayed for financial aid. Thankfully, Georgetown University was very supportive and granted me the Peter F. Karches scholarship that covered all tuition and expenses, and the Community Scholars Scholarship that allowed me to take summer prep-courses.

What was the most challenging part of getting your undergraduate degree? As the oldest of four, I have always been very self-sufficient and independent. I graduated as the only Latina in the top of my high school class, and was ready to conquer the world. However, at Georgetown, I struggled with academics and culture. I studied hard, but I could not keep up with my coursework or understand the level of affluence of my classmates. My GPA and morale were low. By the fall semester of my sophomore year, I did a thing I had never done before: I asked for help. I reached out to older classmates and professors and shared my struggles. I admitted my knowledge gaps and skill shortcomings. By asking for help, I connected with academic resources and mentors who understood my upbringing and challenges. My struggle helped me grow and learn that asking for help was a strength. Being vulnerable in front of others allowed me to be genuine and to be a leader for others with similar experiences.

What didn’t your family understand about the higher education experience that you wish they would understand better? My family did not understand the level of work that Georgetown would take. For so long, we believed that by making it to college, I had made it out of poverty. However, the real work started from the day I stepped on campus. I struggled to explain to my parents who worked 40+ hours how studying was rough. I had always been good at school, so they expected me to succeed but it was a rough start. I still remember when I came home after my first fall semester, my parents were worried because I was sleeping so much. I had to explain what finals were and how much sleep I had lost.

What led you to pursue an MBA degree? I worked in federal consulting and enjoyed working with mission driven agencies; however, I felt that I lacked the business foundations that I need to make a bigger impact with my clients. I began looking at the MBA degree because it would supplement my public sector experience and give me a different perspective to problem solving.

How did you choose your MBA program? “Stretch experience” is a phrase that Wharton uses frequently and a phrase that I identified with during my school research. It means to push yourself beyond your comfort zone and to try things you never thought you would. I knew that during my MBA I wanted to try things that I have never done before like hockey and advanced economics. However, I was worried that I was going to be able to perform. One of the amazing things about the stretch experience in the Wharton community is the support system. During pre-term, I gave a 60-second lecture and while my heart was pounding and I was sure I was rambling, my classmates cheered me. My learning team has also helped me explore my entrepreneurial side by brainstorming ideas with me.

What was your biggest worry before starting your MBA? My biggest worry was performing academically. I do not have a heavy quantitative background and Wharton prides itself on being a quantitative heavy school. I was also worried that I would not find a community. Wharton has a class of about 850 students; however, during preterm, I experienced how Wharton intentionally helps students create a community early on. I was assigned a Student Life Fellow with 18 other classmates and we had dinner. I was also assigned a Leadership Fellow who helps me and my learning team learn how to navigate the coursework the first semester. In addition, Wharton encourages students to participate in small group dinners, which have helped me connect with students from all over the world. After pre-term I felt ready to tackle academics and had a group of friends who came from all over the world.

How were you able to finance your MBA as a first generation student? Wharton awarded me the Joseph Wharton Fellowship and that has helped me cover some of the cost of tuition. I cover the rest with a mix of savings and loans.

What advice would you have for other first-generation college students? Ask yourself, “Why not me?” and surround yourself with people who will cheer you on. I regret not pursuing opportunities because I did not think that I was qualified or that I would not fit in with the people. I think that mentality really closed some doors for me.

What do you plan to pursue after graduation? In the short term, I want to pursue a consulting role where I can work with private companies and learn how they do business. In the long term, I would like to run for office in my home state of Florida where I can take the leadership lessons from Wharton and apply them to communities like the ones I came from.