Scholarship Stories: Kristina Serrano

Scholarships impact the lives of students beyond the classroom. Your generosity has forever impacted students like Kristina Serrano, a recipient of the Illinois Commitment Scholarship.

Senior Kristina Serrano is just months away from graduation –the culmination of four years of self-discovery, hard work, and many accomplishments. Her time as a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) John R. Lewis Scholar with the University of Michigan Future Public Health Leaders Program solidified that a career in public health was the right fit for her. While she nears the end of her student journey, we must rewind to understand how she got here.

Serrano grew up the child of parents who immigrated from the Philippines. Mr. and Mrs. Serrano always envisioned their daughter achieving great things. They saw her excelling in the healthcare field, though they also knew the cost would be immense for such a career.

Serrano started down the path of making that vision a reality – attending the University of Illinois and taking the pre–medicine coursework needed. When applying, she felt she’d figure out how to achieve her dream – she just had to get in. Not only did she end up with an acceptance letter to the university, she found out she qualified for Illinois Commitment – her fears of financial barriers were wiped away in a single day.

As she entered her first year, Serrano was excited to be on campus, attending the science-heavy daily schedule of a biology major – learning all about the tiniest cells on our planet, though never fully connecting with the coursework. She remembered thinking, “I can’t even see the things I’m learning about right now, and it’s not the type of person I am. I’m a very visual learner. I like tangible things and to see the work I do tangibly.” As she went to her classes, her friends told her what they were studying as part of the Interdisciplinary Health Sciences Program (I-Health), learning about health systems and complex health issues – a tangible way to implement the science she was learning about for lasting change. That sounded more like the right fit.

As Serrano learned more about the program and met with advisors, she was ready to switch to her major. She knew what she wanted, though she also knew this would mean a major shift of her parents’ dreams for her. It was time to break the news to them.

Serrano is a first-generation college student, though her family is full of healthcare workers, including nurses, doctors, and radiologists. Ending her pursuit of a career in the medical field before it even got started was going to impact not just her parents but her entire family. She knew what was best for her, though. With a bit of trepidation, she explained that she’d be switching her major to I-Health, and with time, her parents also embraced their daughter’s new dream.

Serrano flourished in the I-Health program from her sophomore to her senior year. She studied topics that interested her and allowed her to see how she could impact society through the lens of public health. Serrano also flourished outside the classroom – she joined the Illinois-Coalition Assisting Undocumented Students’ Education (I-CAUSE) as a sophomore and slowly grew within the student organization as a general member, to the Vice President of the Education Pillar, to finally leading her peers as President for her final year. Through her involvement with I-CAUSE, Serrano advocated for equity in post secondary education opportunities for undocumented and DACAmented student populations on campus and beyond. As a member of Alpha Phi Omega, a national co-ed service fraternity, she exemplified her love for leadership and service alongside her peers. Serrano’s family background in serving others ran strong – her way of serving others just looked slightly different than the healthcare field tied to her family.

That service came to fruition in the form of the University of Michigan Future Public Health Leaders Program, one of the seven programs under the CDC John R. Lewis Undergraduate Public Health Scholars Program umbrella, which brought her to Ann Arbor and Detroit to grow personally and professionally, dive into relevant public health curriculum, and gain real-world public health experiences. As part of the program, Serrano completed a community health needs assessment for the Greater Washtenaw County and served as a facilitator for a youth summer program where she taught youth of the Southwest Detroit community ages twelve to twenty-four about critical health topics such as sexual assault, domestic violence prevention, empathy, conflict resolution, and communication. As a wrap up to her summer experience, Serrano traveled to the CDC Headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia, where she had the opportunity to network with CDC staff and fellow Lewis Scholars from the additional programs, hear from notable public health professionals through panels and workshops, and present her culminating poster from her summer experience, “Investing Power in Youth: Strengthening Health Literacy Through Youth Participatory Action Research (YPAR)”. Serrano was selected as the 2023 William-Hutchins Health Equity Award recipient from the Michigan FPHLP program, in recognition of exceptional student projects that advance health disparity science and minority health. She was doing all the hands-on work she’d hoped for from the beginning, making tangible progress towards her ultimate career goal of advancing health equity.

Serrano will graduate in the spring of 2024 with a Bachelor of Science Major in Interdisciplinary Health Sciences, a minor in Sociology, and a certificate in Global Health. While it looks different than she initially planned, she’s still on a path to impact the lives and health of those around her.

“Being in the midst of people, studying people, and the systems in place that impact people’s health is really something that I find enjoyable. I find it motivating and just something that I would want to do for the rest of my life.”