Graduation Student Speaker: Serena Carlson

Serena Carlson was one of the student speakers at the Penn State World Campus Graduation Celebration for summer semester. Here are the remarks she shared: 

Hello, my name is Serena Carlson. I live in Seattle, Washington and like you, I am a World Campus student. I am 39, and a mom to three wonderful children; Braeden, age 13; Chace, age 10; and Olivia, age 7. Without their support I would not be standing here today. I would like to first not only acknowledge them, but thank them for giving up their mom for the last 4.5 years while I went back to school. Most of this time I was a working single mom and my children were unwavering in their support of their mother.

This speech was difficult for me to write. There were several things that came to mind while I was composing my speech: hard work, perseverance, grit, and motivation. I realized quickly that these qualities do not make me unique, but rather they are qualities that I share with all of you!

WE ARE not the typical traditional college students, WE ARE so much more. WE ARE parents, some of us single parents, caretakers, former military service men and women. We work full-time, sometimes two jobs, and we are also college students. We understand that obtaining our degree is hard work. We have had to persevere while fighting an uphill battle. We have shown we have REAL GRIT, and WE ARE MOTIVATED.

I decided to talk about finding your purpose, no matter how late in life you may find it. Here is how I found my purpose.

I had a difficult childhood. My parents divorced. My dad was an alcoholic and my mom decided to leave my sister and me with him and she moved to California. Like so many of us here today, my family didn’t have it easy. I was a varsity athlete, had a job and got good grades. I was then ready to go off to college and learned my college savings had been withdrawn by one of my parents. At that moment I gave up. I quit high school, and I did not graduate. This was the biggest mistake of my life. I had no support and I folded.

Through the years, I worked hard. I got married, and I was the breadwinner, so my husband could finish college and go on to obtain a master’s degree. It was then going to be my turn. But my turn never came. I had three children and he traveled five days a week, so school or work wasn’t an option. I became a walking cliché. He went to the top of his profession with my support, and then he left me.

I found myself a single mom, with no job and no education. Terrified, I went down to my local community college and took the GED test. I scored a 98%. I passed on my first try. I enrolled in classes and 17 years after I walked out of school, I ripped the bandage off and went back in. I was humbled beyond my core. It was hard, scary and daunting.

I wasn’t sure what I was going to do, but I had to do something, and I would not let my past define my future. I was determined to do this for my children, so I could take care of them. I started taking classes and a funny thing happened. I was good at it. I continued to take classes and excel. I had planned on getting a four-year degree at my local community college. I then realized I was eligible for an Associate’s degree, so I obtained one. In doing so, I realized I could apply to universities. This was something that I never could have imagined – that I could go to a world-class university. I had five weeks to quickly apply to several universities. I applied to a local one, other PAC-12 ones, and a private university. I applied at Penn State, because that had always been a dream for me when I was younger. I remember watching the Nittany Lions play at a few Rose Bowls and I remember watching some of the coverage at University Park promoting the university and I thought, I want to go there!

So, I waited for the acceptance. I was holding out. Penn State was the last one to send me their acceptance letter, and I was elated when they said YES! I had always wanted to help people and decided to pursue that cause and I enrolled in Penn State’s Health Policy and Administration program.

I started in May of 2016. A little over two years later and here I am speaking. In these two wonderful years I have traveled abroad with my amazing university, its faculty and students. I traveled to Costa Rica twice to study its healthcare system, once as a student and again the following year as a teaching assistant. I also traveled to Sweden to study their healthcare system. While there, I found the home my grandfather had been born in. My children came and visited me when I was finished studying, and I showed them not only the wonderful country, but the family home as well.

I was always dedicated to helping people. These trips solidified my purpose to help the most vulnerable populations back in the United States. I landed my dream job, where I work for King County Public Health Department in Seattle, Washington. I support a clinic that mainly serves those experiencing homelessness and those currently using drugs. In Seattle, we have a crisis, like so many other areas in our country. I am very proud to work with those whose mission is to help others.

My children have seen my dedication and passion to help others. While we find our purpose, not only do we change our life for the better, but we also change those lives around us. Recently, I was not going to come to graduation and my children convinced me to do so. They said, “Mom, you’ve sacrificed so much for us, you’re allowed to do this for yourself”.

What one of my kids said next made this journey worth it. My two younger children made a comment that they were happy I was graduating because they would have their regular mom back, and they wished I was a stay at home mom. My 13-year-old son Braeden, said “Why would you ask Mom to do that? She has worked so hard and sacrificed everything for us and to help other people. All she has ever wanted to do was to help those who do not have a voice to get one, and to give them a chance. She has a job in Public Health where she is serving those who are the most vulnerable. She not only found her purpose; she’s living it!”

Five years ago, if someone would have told me I would be graduating from a Division 1, world-class university, I would have laughed. Never give up your dreams or your purpose, no matter how difficult it may seem. There are many things that can be taken from you, but an education is something that no one can ever take from you. An education is power. Be powerful.

WE ARE all living proof: this can be done. Arm yourself with knowledge; it will never fail you. When we find and live our purpose, we not only change the course of our lives, but the lives around us. So, go out there and live your purpose.  I will continue to live my purpose for others, my 3 wonderful children and my amazing fiancé, Shane.

Thank you.