2020 First Generation MBAs: Mauricio Serna, Harvard Business School

Mauricio Serna

Harvard Business School

Class: 2021

Hometown: Weston, Florida | born in Colombia

Fun Fact About Yourself: I am afraid of heights, but love skydiving

Undergraduate School and Major: Georgetown University: Government and Economics (double major)

Most Recent Employer and Job Title: VP of Finance – Commercial Real Estate Exchange (CREXi)

What did your parents do for a living? My mother is a housekeeper and my dad has been a minister for the past seven years. He worked in construction for ~15 years prior to becoming a minister.

What was the highest level of education achieved by your mother and your
Both of my parents only received elementary school educations in Colombia. They were pulled out of school after fifth grade and started working to help support their families and raise their siblings.

Which family member or mentor is your biggest inspiration or role model? Why? My parents are the hardest working, most humble and resilient people I know. Growing up with their example taught me the most valuable lessons in life. never heard them complain or lose steam despite their long work hours, the physically demanding nature of their jobs, the poor compensation, and the various humiliations that came with their employment. They woke up each day with immense gratitude for having a job that fed us and kept a roof over our heads. They are by far my greatest inspiration.

What was the moment that led you to decide to pursue higher education? I always knew I wanted to pursue higher education. My parents also always emphasized the need for us to build professional careers that would offer my siblings and I a different lifestyle to the one they were afforded.

That said, I would argue that my family’s immigration process pushed me to achieve more than I would have without the hardship that came with our immigration story. I was nine-years old when we moved to South Florida and none of us spoke a word of English. We immediately started an immigration adjustment process to establish permanent legal residence, but the process failed for various reasons. I therefore graduated from high school as an undocumented immigrant and, like my siblings, I was told that college was not an option for me.

However, foregoing college wasn’t a reality I was prepared to accept so I found a full-time day job and convinced my boss at the time to fund my tuition at the local community college where I enrolled as a full-time evening student. For two-years, I worked an 8 a.m. -5 p.m. job and enrolled in six evening classes each semester to complete my associate degree in 2010. Fortunately, we obtained our permanent residence that same year, which made me eligible for financial aid, so I transferred Georgetown University where I was blessed to receive a scholarship covering 100% of my tuition.

Attending Georgetown and stepping outside of the immigrant bubble in South Florida broadened my understanding of the opportunities that were ahead of me. I grew more determined to chase after every dream, goal, and ambition I had. It has been a great ride so far.

What was your biggest worry before going for your undergraduate degree?  It was the financial burden of attending college out-of-state, at an expensive elite school like Georgetown, and not being able to continue supporting my parents the way I had been able to before. I also worried about fitting in given my background was so starkly different from the traditional Georgetown student.

What was the most challenging part of getting your undergraduate degree? It was ramping up my academic engine to the same operating level of my peers. I could tell within a week of being on campus that I wasn’t well-equipped to perform academically at a level I considered satisfactory. The preparation, resources, cultural and social wealth my peers came with was noticeably more advanced, so I became obsessed with self-improvement.

To be clear, I never really cared about comparing myself to anyone else, nor did I care about the competition. I have always been more interested in ensuring I meet my own expectations and standards. I was very proud of the academic, personal and social growth I experienced during my time at Georgetown.

What didn’t your family understand about the higher education experience that you wish they would understand better? Everything! The world my parents and siblings grew up in is vastly different from the world experienced at an elite academic institution, especially when we compare the cultural difference in the undergraduate process in Colombia (my native country) and the U.S.

The concept of living at school was new to them – as were the extracurricular activities, the classes and selection of majors and concentrations, the career opportunities post-graduation, and the social experience. Literally every part of my college experience was novel to them, which made it both thrilling and, admittedly, frustrating when I could not simply call mom or dad and ask for their opinion or support navigating stressful parts of the process.

What led you to pursue an MBA degree? After spending four years at Goldman Sachs and two-years at a startup running their finance team, I realized that I had gained all my “business/corporate finance knowledge” through self-instruction / on-the-job-training. Not only did I want to deepen my understanding of the financial concepts I had become familiar with, but I also wanted to broaden the menu of career opportunities in my future.

How did you choose your MBA program? Harvard was my top choice for the MBA program because of the case method and the section experience. I learn best when I pair theory with real-life examples that require the type of analysis prompted by the case method. I also knew that I wanted to build strong relationships during the two-year program and heard from multiple alumni that the structure of the HBS section experience creates an unparalleled medium for you to develop strong bonds with the 90+ peers you share the entire RC experience with. I could not be happier with my choice and the HBS experience thus far.

What was your biggest worry before starting your MBA? I would echo the same financial fear I had going into my undergraduate experience. After six years in the work force where I earned a salary that afforded me the opportunity to support my family in incredible ways, I was hesitant about letting that go and risking the stability my parents and I had secured.

The cost of the MBA program is substantial, and it comes with considerable sacrifices, but I am certain the payout will come.

How were you able to finance your MBA as a first-generation student? A mix of personal savings and a substantial amount of student loans.

What advice would you have for other first-generation college students? I would highly recommend you embrace every bit of who you are and lean-in to the lessons life has taught you as a first-generation student. Be your authentic self.

I know that I am stronger, more determined, and more appreciative of everything because of my background. Owning who I am, proudly wearing my story on my skin, and sharing the lessons I have learned along the way with my peers has meaningfully enhanced my HBS experience. I have forged lifelong friendships by sharing my story, being vulnerable and welcoming others’ vulnerability into my life.

I urge you to never compromise your background or hide your story to “fit-in.” Be bold, take risks, share your perspective and stand out, you’re guaranteed to thrive in life by doing so.

What do you plan to pursue after graduation? I plan to pursue a career in Private Equity and eventually start my own business/fund focusing on the intersection of real estate, health & wellness, and hospitality.


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