API Month Leadership Spotlight: Dr. Elaine Serina

By Jackie Bueno

This year, the Restorative Justice blog is highlighting community leaders from the community for Asian Pacific Islander Month (API). Because the voices from the Pilipinx community often are underrepresented in U.S. media, our center recognizes the importance of uplifting voices like these.

For our API series, we’re highlighting various leaders from Pinay Aspirations, a non-profit organization created to promote the aspirations of Pilipinx youth in education, the community, personal growth and career development. Pinay Aspirations achieves these goals through scholarships, mentorship programs, community service and other activities or resources that will enhance their personal development and advancement in life.

To learn more about Pinay Aspirations, see this link here!

For our first feature of this series, we’re highlighting Elaine Serina, Ph.D. Dr. Serina founded Pinay Aspirations in 2006 and served as President for four years. She has been an active member of the community, having served as President-Elect for the Filipina Women’s Network, as Vice-President of the UC Berkeley Engineering Alumni Association, and on the Advisory Council of the Daly City Youth Health Center. She co-founded the first Filipino graduate student organization at Cal. She currently serves on the Board of Directors for the non-profit, Philippine International Aid. Dr. Serina is also a Founder and Principal of Talas Engineering, Inc., a nationally-recognized engineering consulting firm. She received her B.S., M.S., and Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering from UC Berkeley.

Here’s my interview with Dr. Serina:

Jackie: Tell me about where you grew up.
Elaine: I think that it was hard because I was constantly finding the bridge between two cultures — between the States and where my parents emigrated from (the Philippines). There’s a Western culture that’s all about going out with your friends and being independent, whereas in Filipino culture, family was most important so I had to take care of siblings and did not have much freedom to go out.

It makes it hard to live in two worlds because on one hand, you’re trying to assimilate to American culture but adhere to the values and culture your Filipino parents raise you with. I had a younger brother who got to go out more than me. It puts a big burden on the kids. Part of the reasons scholarship candidates do not succeed is because there’s certain responsibilities, expectations, time, energy, thought process that goes into this that not everyone has because of their circumstances which makes it harder.

Jackie: How has your Filipin@ identity been shaped?
Elaine: So I’m the oldest of four kids. I was born in the U.S. and spent most of my childhood living in places where there were few minorities. My father dealt with discrimination and racism “I did too!”, and so he imparted a strong sense of Filipino-ness and Filipino pride into me.

At Cal, I had a strong need to reach out and connect with the Filipino community. I didn’t see many Filipin@-American people in my academic field.

Jackie: What advice do you have for immigrant parents and their children to better understand one another as they make the transition from their home countries to the states such as yourself?
Elaine: I think the biggest thing that Filipino immigrant parents and their children try to navigate are things like expressing love. My parents expressed their love by trying to establish a good life for my siblings and I here, by putting a roof over my head, food on the table, and financially supporting us. It was more about survival than being in tune with my emotional concerns.

For example, I did some research about the lives of Filipino immigrants and their children as they adjusted to life in the states. Sometimes all the children wanted to hear was that my parents loved me, that they were proud of me. The parents did, but the kids didn’t know it, and that was huge gap in understanding and communication. A common message I kept hearing was that kids just wanted to feel appreciated.

There’s also the issue of a cultural difference and a generational difference. And then sometimes parents have high and unrealistic expectations. For example, I felt that in a Chinese family, their parents understood their children not only needed to attend college but also grad school. My parents didn’t really understand this is what I needed to do to excel in my field, so once I went to grad school, my parents did not support me financially. I was definitely jealous of my Chinese- American peers.

And after I went through that and pushed through, I learned that they were well-intended. However, I don’t think our society has an appreciation for the different starting points that individuals have to make to succeed.

Jackie: Why did you found Pinay Aspirations?
Elaine: There’s a lot of scholarships out there that appeal to educational opportunities. But there weren’t many scholarships that appealed to the challenges that Filipinos had to deal with. And I didn’t think my situation was that unusual.

I realized that there have been people who have experienced disadvantages who probably if they didn’t have those, they would have an amazing life that an affluent, white family in a neighborhood would have. People look at what you’ve done and what you can do. So Pinay Aspirations focuses on girls, challenges that they’ve overcome, and their potential to succeed.

By challenges, I’m referring to external challenges and recognize the fact that if they hadn’t had them, they probably would have had an easier time to succeed. I also recognize these disadvantages could be having immigrant parents not knowing how things work in the States and having the ability to encourage their children to succeed.

That’s why I thought even though the dollar amount of the scholarship is nominal, I know that some of the scholars who have won this have found the money very helpful.

The bigger aspect of Pinay Aspirations is the mentorship. A lot of the Scholars find the support and advice of an “Ate” (older sister) to be hugely valuable. It was important to me that the mentorship, emotional support, and connection to a network of strong Pinays be a strong part of the award.

And even if you don’t receive the scholarship, we make sure to include in our rejection letter to keep in touch, so that we can continue to support our community in other ways even if it’s not through a scholarship.

Jackie: How has starting your own company been a way for you to carry on the work you do in Pinay Aspirations?
Elaine: As part of making a bigger contribution to society, definitely being a role model and encouraging others.

I think that what really helped me gain credibility in my field and start my business was getting a Ph.D. It’s not a requirement, but the Ph.D. has helped balance the discrimination or disfavoring I’ve received because of my ethnicity and gender. There are very few women in engineering in my industry, and even fewer Filipinos.

I do feel like sometimes in my field, I don’t know if I’m being discriminated for my gender or my race, or because I look young. I have thought often that a lot of these things I wonder about wouldn’t happen to me if I were a tall, white male.

Jackie: What do you have to say to people that do not believe in the hardships of first-generations students such as yourself?
Elaine: I think a lot of it has to do with a lack of knowledge. It’s hard for some people to understand these struggles if they don’t understand that they really exist. For example, I spoke with a colleague who was so intrigued by the #MeToo movement. It was hard for him to grasp that men could just be so creepy and weird in a professional setting, so it was harder to accept that this happens a lot. It would be nice if people could be more open to learning more about other people’s experiences, recognizing that they can be so different.

Jackie Bueno is a senior at UC Berkeley studying Sociology. For further inquiries or if you would like to be featured, please contact her at jacquelinebueno@berkeley.edu.

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