NSHSS Q&A with Paul Serrato, Apalachee High School Valedictorian

Monday, July 20, 2015
Graduation Caps

Q) How does it feel to be the Valedictorian of Apalachee High School Class of 2015?

A) When I think about all the people who have helped me reach this point in my life, I only wish that I could somehow express the sense of gratitude that I feel to each of them. I feel very fortunate to have had the strong support system at home and at school that allowed me to take advantage of the available opportunities. And quite frankly, I feel relieved that I was able to reciprocate the hard work that many people around me have always exhibited. Graduating as valedictorian was a testament of their positive influence on me, and to be able to represent that, I feel proud.

Q) You mentioned that a lot of educators helped you through your journey, is there anyone in particular you would like to mention who had a profound impact?

A) There have been many teachers who have encouraged and inspired me, and I think they each deserve special recognition for the way he or she has forever changed my life. To answer this question, I’d like to focus on Mr. Holcomb, my AP United States Government teacher and academic team coach. Even before I took his class during my junior year, I was always learning something new from Mr. Holcomb through academic team practice. His intellectual vitality and genuine appreciation for teaching and learning brought me to his classroom twice a week to study additional material almost two hours after school had ended. It was from these practices and later from his class that he inspired me to pursue knowledge for its own sake, a quality that made me not only a better student but also a life-long learner.

Q) As an NSHSS Ambassador and Valedictorian of your class, what advice would you give students about leadership?

A) When it comes to leadership, I always think about bringing out the best in others. As a student leader, I think that starts in the classroom because leadership does not merely manifest itself within position or social status; it’s about character and lifestyle no matter where you are. My advice for students who are striving to boost their leadership is to understand its primary function is to influence those around you, which can happen with something as simple as sharing a textbook with a classmate or having the courage to ask questions during class. Not only will this help improve your grades, it will also help people around you begin to see that you live life intentionally, a quality very few would fail to admire and follow.

Q) What are you planning to study at Stanford University and where do you see yourself in the future?

A) I’m currently deciding between majoring in Human Biology, which integrates elements from biology, anthropology, and psychology, and Symbolic Systems, an interdisciplinary study that involves neuroscience, computer science, and philosophy. I’m also interested in exploring public health and ethnicity studies. Although I don’t know exactly what I want my future to look like, I know I want it to involve science and its application to help other people, especially those from underrepresented and often overlooked communities. Whether that means practicing medicine, researching in a lab, organizing a nonprofit, or working in underprivileged communities abroad, I envision myself continuing a personal mission to break down societal barriers separating people who share a similar background as my own from reaching their dreams.

Q) What are you expecting for your freshman year of college as a first generation student to be like?

A) I expect the transition to be just as confusing, frustrating, and rewarding as my educational experience has been so far. At an early age, I grew independent out of necessity at school because I had ventured beyond what was familiar to my parents. Because of that, I think my struggle of having to figure things out for myself pushed me to become more responsible, though it was never without the moral support of my family. As I venture out even further into the unfamiliar realms of college, I know that I’ll continue to have the support from back home, and with the support of people at Stanford, I expect my freshman year to be a difficult yet valuable experience for my own personal growth.

Q) You mentioned in your valedictorian speech that you had to be independent from as early as third grade, what advice would you give students about taking the responsibility of completing important tasks on their own?

A) It’s going to be frustrating and difficult, but I think there’s value in that. Taking on responsibilities early on makes you independent, which is important when it comes to taking the initiative for a better future. I like to think of it as not waiting for permission to reach success because there’s nobody there to hand out permission to begin with; it’s all up to you.



My advice to students who are having to juggle an overwhelming amount of responsibilities is to keep on juggling because learning to handle seven or eight things makes you that much better the day you only have two or three to handle.

Q) High school is an important stepping-stone to college, what was your favorite aspect about your school?

A) One of the best things about my high school was the close-knit atmosphere that it fostered. Because most students grow up in the same school district together and most teachers seemed to care for the students and not their numbers, it was hard to walk in the hallways of my high school and not stop to speak to a friend or mentor along the way. We had approximately 1700 students in my school, so it wasn’t too small, but it was small enough to allow us to struggle, learn, laugh, and live together.

Q) We noticed in the video that you’ve collected an array of cords and stoles for graduation, what was your favorite extracurricular activity and why?

A) One of my favorite extracurricular activities was helping to start a new club at my school called the Hispanic Organization Promoting Education, also known as HoPe. The mission of this organization is to help increase graduation rates, especially among Hispanic students, through leadership, education, and community service. As one chapter of over twenty throughout the state of Georgia, my school responded well with joining the “HoPe Family”, becoming the largest club at my school in its first year. As a Hispanic student myself, I understand the difficulties that these students face going through the educational system, especially if they are first-generation. As a US citizen of Mexican descent, I feel like I share the responsibility to help alleviate some of the societal pressures hindering students with a similar background from reaching their dreams. Because the mission of HoPe aligns well with a mission of my own, I was proud to wear the black and gold cord representing HoPe at graduation.

Q) Many top universities like Stanford University are filled with the top of the tier of the U.S. population. You emphasized in your speech that you were an underprivileged Hispanic student, yet by being accepted into Stanford, you too are the top of the tier. What type of encouragement would you give to other underprivileged students about not being afraid to apply for the best that the world has to offer?

A) I think there’s a misconception that being economically disadvantaged or belonging to a minority group somehow makes a person not good enough to reach the most coveted dreams. This could not be further from the truth. In my case, being Hispanic or coming from a school where over 50% of students receive free or reduced lunch did not automatically exclude me from being “top of the tier”; they were not mutually exclusive. I recognized that I was, by many standards, “underprivileged” but I also recognized that I could also be an academic. Changing this mentality going into the classroom is what makes the difference. I think the first step towards realizing crazy dreams is recognizing that they aren’t so crazy and that one is capable of accomplishing them even if the world tries to tell them otherwise. Once a person generates a purpose for going to school, a reason for reaching success, that individual can then use all of their life adversities to fuel an unwavering ambition and a relentless work ethic to overcome them.

Q) In your speech you said that you began “Expecting the World of Myself,” what goals have you set in the past that have gotten you to where you are today?

A) Initially, I never would have imagined myself going to a place like Stanford, but over time, my goals gradually grew larger as I became better. I began goal-setting in middle school, and every year I tried to outdo myself both in the classroom and in my extracurricular activities. At the end of every school year, I wanted to impress myself and do something better than I had the year before. I specified my goals throughout high school, using the SMART goals format, and started looking at the bigger picture. Once I realized that I had the opportunity to not only do well in school but to also accomplish what others had never before attempted, I pushed myself to face the unprecedented challenges that exhausted me the most, like becoming the first football player in my family or taking the most AP courses possible in one school year or applying to Stanford. As uncertain as I was along the way, I committed myself to finding a way to accomplish these goals, even when some questioned the value of even trying.

Q) The summer is the season of rest for most upcoming college freshmen, are you doing anything currently?

A) I’m currently interning for the Coca-Cola Scholars Foundation in Atlanta over the summer. As a 2015 Coca-Cola Scholar, I hope to learn as much as I can about the organization—its members, its structure, and its operations—and gain some experience into the life of working for a nonprofit. For the remainder of the time, I’m spending my last few weeks with friends and family to make this summer one worth remembering before I travel back to my birth state of California in September.