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Defer, Not Deny

Sean Serrao ’18: “I just got that itch to be back in academia and transition my career. I was looking at what is my next chapter?”
Photo: Stetson University/Bobby Fishbough

Sean Serrao’s path from Bishop Moore Catholic High School in Orlando to Stetson wasn’t exactly a straight shot.

Health-related family circumstances scuttled his plans to leave town for college after graduating in 2003. Instead, he stayed close to home, bought a lawnmower to begin cutting lawns and used the money earned to attend local Valencia College. In 2005, he received an associate’s degree in general studies with a concentration in business. 

Then, beginning in 2008,  he spent three years living in Boston, another three in Kansas City plus a year in the Cayman Islands. Serrao was in the firearms business — owning gun stores, working in holster distribution and getting involved in firearms manufacturing. Serrao got into that business, he says, because he grew up hunting and fishing and found the industry to be a “small community” where “everybody’s a friend.” 

Nearly a decade went by as Serrao, who has a federal firearms license, pursued a passion. Until one day, “I just got that itch to be back in academia and transition my career,” he said, adding, “I was looking at what is my next chapter?”

Finally, enter Stetson and the Adult Degree Completion Program in Organizational Leadership.

With his mother living in Deltona, not far from Stetson, Serrao took a look at the program and, with an eye on eventually teaching others, he liked what he saw. Among other admissions criteria, the Adult Degree Completion Program requires that a student be at least 25 years of age or have work/life experience commensurate to three years, and have completed either an associate’s degree or approximately 60 college credit hours before matriculation.

In spring 2016, Serrao arrived on campus at age 32. 

Serrao joined a program cohort that included an 80-year-old who sought a degree, just like her siblings had earned. There were Tuesday night classes in seven-week segments on campus, with nightly homework. The hybrid course model also included online learning. Additionally, Serrao became part of Stetson’s esteemed Roland George Investments Program, open to select students who, for two semesters, step into the real world of portfolio management. And in December, he graduated as one of eight in the cohort (and the only male). 

More impressively, during that time Serrao became both inspired and inspiring, according to Shawnrece Campbell, Ph.D., the program’s director and chair.

“He took advantage of every opportunity that was presented to him,” Campbell said. 

“There’s no doubt in my mind that he’s going to be phenomenal professor once he obtains that Ph.D., because he really does want to be able to give back to students the type of encouragement and the foundation and the learning that he received here at Stetson.” 

Helena Hanson, Ed.D., adjunct professor in the program who doubled as a mentor to Serrao, agrees, pointing to his own leadership. Her comments read like a letter of recommendation. “He was one of my best students: highly analytical and reflective, and he often delivered more than expected,” Hanson commented. “He was very contributory during our classroom discussions; his examples were relevant, and he supported his thoughts with appropriate and credible resources. He volunteered to tutor some of his peers, especially during financing classes. Only after he helped them, he attended to his own work.”

For good measure, Hanson added, “He was able to make positive impact regardless who was around him, and he eagerly jumped into leadership opportunities.”

“He took advantage of every opportunity that was presented to him.” — Shawnrece Campbell, Ph.D., director of Stetson’s Adult Degree Completion Program in Organizational Leadership

Notably, this comes from a student who clearly has other interests. Serrao also is a drag racer, a member of the National Hot Rod Association, something he’s done for 16 years. His father raced for more than 40 years. 

And Serrao’s greatest achievements as a Stetson student weren’t even on campus. In November, a month before graduating, he attended the PhD Project Conference in Chicago, where 100 of the nation’s 130 doctorate-issuing institutions were present to recruit top students of diverse demographic groups. At the three-day event, Serrao reached “rock-star status,” Campbell described, participating in 14 interviews with leading universities.

Serrao called the experience “nerve-racking,” noting, “I knew it had to be ‘knock their socks off’ or you’re not going to get what you want.”

Ultimately, Serrao prevailed. 

“You know you’re picking up skills and you’re learning [during the Adult Degree Completion Program], and you’re writing papers. But a lot of that all came together for me at the conference,” he explained. “I learned that the things learned here at Stetson, especially in the organizational leadership program, were things that a lot of institutions aren’t teaching yet. … That was a big benefit, because I was already having discussions at a higher level with the admissions committee than a lot of the [other applicants].”

His decision on the doctorate is still pending — it’s a five-year commitment — with a top-five list that contains Harvard, New York University, Florida International University, Louisiana State University and the University of Connecticut. 

A “poster” student for the Adult Degree Completion Program at Stetson? Maybe. But for another reason, too. The program is designed to work in concert with adult life. In life, of course, sometimes circumstances change. 

They did for Serrao. In January, a new health-related family circumstance arose, as it had following high school all those years ago. As a result, he plans to remain close to home for now and hopes to defer enrollment in a doctoral program. In the meantime, Serrao is working toward obtaining a secondmaster’s degree — a Masters of Applied Science in Economics, Data & Development Policy from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), mostly online.

For Serrao and, in fact, for the entire Adult Degree Completion Program, the key word might just be defer. But certainly not deny.

Michael Candelaria