"To Help Somebody like Me"

Marie Serrano '77SW

Marie Serrano (left) with her mother on graduation day.

As Marie Serrano tells it, when she applied to the School of Social Work back in the mid-70s, her essay described growing up with an uncle living with schizophrenia. She wrote about visiting him as a child and witnessing the alarming conditions at state hospitals—shock treatments, cold showers, therapies now long discontinued. She saw social work as a way to help people like her uncle. Marie added, “I’ve always liked challenges. ”

And she has known many, starting with her family background. “My parents were factory workers who didn’t go to college. In fact, my mother didn't go beyond eighth grade. Early on, I had no self-confidence at all.”

As a child, Marie was curious—always asking questions—and more comfortable with adults than children. "Studying helped me understand the world more. I wanted to break away and create a different life for myself."

Despite little money, and even less self-assurance, she enrolled in a local college, lived at home, bought her own books, and worked long hours.

Marie finished college with a strong record and a drive toward graduate school despite her limited means. She applied to Columbia against the advice of a well-meaning career counselor. It was a long shot. “And then, suddenly, I get this letter,” she recalled.

News of her acceptance to Columbia, with a full two-year scholarship, was “an amazing vote of confidence,” she said. “Being at such a prestigious school and feeling validated—that was important for me in making it through. That scholarship saved my life.”

"That scholarship saved my life.”

Once at Columbia, her confidence only grew in the presence of professors at the top of their fields. “I felt that If I could pass their classes and learn so much from them, I could do anything.” She drew on that confidence during internships working with children, including teenage boys in a residential treatment center. “There was always the feeling that I could figure it out and do it.”

Marie left prepared for decades on the front lines —working with patients with HIV at St. Vincent’s Hospital, people experiencing homelessness, people struggling with addiction, and others in a variety of settings. “I think of social workers as people who help others—that’s what we do.”

Marie Seranno at Social Work Class Day


Lately that help has extended to future generations. Marie and her husband don't have children. When they wrote their wills recently, they thought about how they could “pay it forward.” They have informed Columbia that their estate plan includes a bequest to fund a scholarship at the School of Social Work.

“We decided to give half of our assets to Columbia specifically to support students,” Marie said. “My dream is to help somebody like me, any kid who has the grades but not the resources. I want others to feel a part of somewhere as large and wonderful as Columbia.”

by Tracy Quinn '14SPS

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