When others pressured Gabriel Diaz-Serrano, sophomore theater major, to drop out of school, saying that there was no way he would ever be able to pay for college, he ignored them. Instead, he continued to work hard and utilize campus and community resources to their full potential to ensure that he would be able to finish his education at Emporia State.
When Diaz-Serrano came to ESU as a freshman, he was excited for all of the new opportunities and experiences that college would bring. He was ready to ease into the new independence that college brought and to focus on his school work and his roles in upcoming theater productions. What he did not anticipate, however, was the toll of his new and unfamiliar financial strain and other unforeseen circumstances.
Using campus resources such as TRIO, a set of federally-funded college opportunity programs that support students from disadvantaged backgrounds, and mentors who he met along the way, Diaz-Serrano pushed through the two-week period where his meal plan was suspended.
During this time he ate only the occasional pack of Ramen Noodles to ease his hunger.
He coped with a lack of sleep from constant worry, which deteriorated his mental and physical health.
He made it through the panic of not knowing if his family members had survived the hurricane that ripped through Puerto Rico.
Now in the second semester of his sophomore year, Diaz-Serrano said that he has finally broken through his financial barriers and can concentrate on what he loves, which is working hands-on with students to ensure that they are comfortable on a new campus and aware of all of the resources that are available to them.
“I truly feel that after three semesters of school, this spring semester—after all of that hardship—I’m in a place now where I’m starting to really gear myself up for what I want to be and what I want to do with the rest of my life,” he said.
Growing up, Diaz-Serrano spent most of his life playing sports, particularly soccer and cross country. During his first year at Olathe North High School in Olathe, Kansas, however, he received multiple severe concussions while playing soccer, which put him out for the rest of the season. From there he looked for other activities, and decided that he would audition for the upcoming production of “Guys and Dolls,” where he got the understudy role of Nathan Detroit.
“Me getting concussed led me to joining theater and finding that as a new place to be able to really truly express myself and be able to put on a new character every time I was on stage,” Diaz-Serrano said. “So all throughout high school I would continue to run cross country, but at the same time I would be also involved in theater shows, and I had time to do intramural basketball and things like that.”
Diaz-Serrano then decided to pursue theater. When he began considering colleges, he visited 17 out-of-state colleges, most of them in and around Chicago.
“One day I was told I should also involve an in-state college by my counselor in my senior year and my junior year,” Diaz-Serrano said. “I ended up typing in my computer, I put ‘cheapest 4-year universities in Kansas,’ and behold, Emporia State University was one of the first ones to show up.”
He researched the university and immediately scheduled a visit. After his visit, the only in-state college visit he went to, he decided that ESU would be his college of choice to pursue theater.
Diaz-Serrano said that he encountered his first financial barrier coming into his freshman year when he was required, as almost all ESU freshman are, to live in the freshman dorms and pay for a university meal plan.
“I was paying for college on my own because my sister went through college before me,” Diaz-Serrano said. “So it ended up that my parents didn’t really save for college because we’re from Puerto Rico, and college there is very cheap compared to college here.”
Diaz-Serrano was born in the United States but was baptized in Puerto Rico and lived on the island during the summer months, he said. His family moved to the states around 1990.
Realizing that he would need help if he were to continue his higher education, Diaz-Serrano reached out to Kristi Bolen, TRIO director and his adviser, who helped him find resources on campus and in the community.
“We (TRIO) do a lot of different things,” Bolen said. “One of the pieces that we help with is financial literacy, financial situations, so we help students with applying for financial services like the FAFSA, try to help them better understand their financial information, explaining that to them so that they are more knowledgeable.”
Though TRIO does not offer direct financial support, they can help students identify resources that may help them better manage their finances or locating scholarships.
“All throughout that same process though I was told by different sources and people that I had talked to in the community… that I have to strongly consider dropping out because I wasn’t going to be able to pay those different funds, and they didn’t know if I’d be able to do it for two semesters in a row,” Diaz-Serrano said.
Diaz-Serrano was strongly opposed to dropping out of school, as he is the first person in his family to attend college in the United States, and so continued to seek a higher education. He began, however, to feel the strain of his constant lack of funds.
“It came to a time where my account had so much money that I had to pay off, that I couldn’t pay off, that my meal plan had to go on hold,” Diaz-Serrano said. “So it was about a two-week period in which I wasn’t really able to eat in the caf or anything like that.”
He had also run out of the food that his parents had stocked for him when he first came to college, so he had to “scrape up some spare change,” and was able to buy a large pack of Ramen Noodles, from which he occasionally ate through that time.
“I wasn’t really eating on a healthy and consistent basis as well as I was not getting the proper amount of sleep, so my mental and physical health were going very much downhill,” Diaz-Serrano said.
During this time, Theresa Mitchell, professor of communication and theater and director for “The 39 Steps,” his first theater production, was helping him look for community members or others who might be willing to provide a scholarship or financial aid to Diaz-Serrano to help dig him out of his financial hole.
“I call her (Mitchell) my guardian angel of college,” Diaz-Serrano said. “She was able to award me with a scholarship to be able to help me get through that first semester.”
Mitchell knew that Diaz-Serrano had a specific goal in mind, graduating from college, and wanted to be able to help him meet that goal, she said.
“I knew that college was important to him, that he had a vision, a destination, and persistence,” Mitchell said. “This is something that he wants to accomplish, and I believed in his belief in himself.”
When his first semester came to an end, Diaz-Serrano began seeking solutions to his first semester’s problems with paying for the dorms and meal plan, and petitioned Residential Life to allow him to live off campus for his second semester to hopefully bring down these costs.
“Residential life was very nice and kind to work with me, but we realized that even with the reasoning of why I would like to live outside the dorms, I’d still have to pay 40 percent back to keep up maintenance and everything in the building,” Diaz-Serrano said. “So me leaving the dorms, I would lose more money than living in the dorms.”
With that in mind, Diaz-Serrano knew that he would need to find a job over winter break that would continue into the school year, regardless if he felt adjusted at ESU. He started working as a server at the Applebee’s Neighborhood Grill and Bar in Emporia on top of his old job in Olathe working at Hy-Vee.
“I started commuting back and forth between my old job at home at Hy-Vee,” Diaz-Serrano said. “My weekends would look like: I’d work in the morning at Olathe at Hy-Vee, and then I’d commute to Emporia and work closing night shift at Applebees and commute back to Hy-Vee in the morning and vice versa.”
Because of his constant weekend commute, Diaz-Serrano was unable to focus on his school work, and his grades began slipping.
“It was a juggling act, and I had to go to the wellness center a couple of times,” Diaz-Serrano said. “Just to be able to talk through things, because at that point I didn’t really talk to that many people about these things. Most people wouldn’t know it was happening because I had that brick wall in front of me that I wouldn’t let people see that I was being affected by the lack of sleep, the lack of mental health, different things along those lines.”
Bolen said that she could tell that the stress of his financial struggle was affecting Diaz-Serrano.
“When I met with Gabe (Diaz-Serrano) during that semester, you could see the stress on him,” Bolen said. “I mean, it was really evident when I met with him, and the amount of stress that it was putting on him and how it was difficult for him… to even focus on school during that time, because he was trying to figure out how he was going to pay for things.”
Soon however, with the help of the income from his hours at work and from a bonus check that his father received from work, Diaz-Serrano was able to cover the cost of his second semester.
He worked three jobs all through that summer, adding on hours at a construction and painting company. Because of this, in addition to the fact that he was no longer required to live in the dorms, Diaz-Serrano was able to pay tuition for the first semester of his sophomore year. During this semester, however, he was confronted with more hardship that was not within his control.
“We had two hurricanes come through the island in Puerto Rico, where 85 percent of my family lives,” Diaz-Serrano said. “My direct family lives in the states and everyone else lives on the island, and just having to consistently be wondering if they were alright, if there was anything you can do, but not being able to hear back from them because they didn’t have electricity. They didn’t have those resources or phone towers.”
Through this semester he suffered from a severe lack of sleep due to a consistent anxiety from not knowing what the situation was in Puerto Rico, as well as having to juggle his various activities, including theater, choir, E-Team, work and a social life.
“After a while it was nice to see that the current balance (in his account) was on zero for that semester, but the consistent struggle of trying to figure out whether my family was okay was always in the back of my head,” Diaz- Serrano said.
This leads Diaz-Serrano to now, in the second semester of his sophomore year. Puerto Rico is recovering and he was able to make contact with family, he is more financially sound than he was a year ago, is a more practicing member of his faith and an active member of the Didde Catholic Campus Center and is now able to take steps toward what he wants to do with the rest of his life.
“I recently got a job on campus as an involvement consultant in the Center for Student Involvement, and I’m able to monitor my hours and limit them at Applebee’s so I can focus on school,” Diaz-Serrano said. “I am able to work more hands-on with students and get them involved, (and) make them feel comfortable, give them resources that I didn’t know were things at that time. Then I’m able to work more towards working in that student affairs higher education realm that I truly want to work in.”
For other students who might be in a similar position, Diaz-Serrano advises to utilize all of the resources that the university has to offer.
“Don’t ever be afraid to look for help,” Diaz-Serrano said. “And just because one place says no to you doesn’t mean another place won’t say yes.”
Diaz-Serrano also puts a large emphasis on self-care, and encourages students to work on themselves if they are having problems and to use resources such as the campus Wellness Center to help them through.
“One of the most important people to help is yourself,” Diaz-Serrano said.