By PENNY FLETCHER
Yaima Serrano’s story is somewhat like the one about President Abraham Lincoln growing up in a log cabin and studying law by candlelight.
It’s every bit as impressive because it shows how a child of refugees learned a new language and grew up to excel in a challenging field and now helps other students do the same.
Yaima Serrano has been named the new dean of Student Services at Hillsborough Community College’s South County campus. And that’s quite a change from her early life, which wasn’t easy. In fact, if it hadn’t been for the perseverance and fortitude of her parents, Vilma and Pedro Rodriguez, she could have ended up living in a tent in Cuba begging for food.
A survivor of the Mariel Boat Lift, now called by some the Freedom Flotilla, Serrano was one of the 125,000 Cubans who made it to Florida in 1980 between April 15 and Oct. 31 on small boats, rafts and anything else that would float.
She was a baby then, and now has no memory of the event, only the stories from her parents, who were also interviewed by email for this story.
“My mother was 17 and my dad was 21,” said Serrano in her HCC office with floor-to-ceiling glass overlooking the front of the campus. “But even though they were married, in Cuba my mother still had to have the permission of her parents — my grandmother — before she could leave.”
Serrano’s office is a lifetime away from when she was taken below deck during the Mariel Boat Lift.
“The captain allowed my mother to take me below, because I was so young and people were vomiting.” There were no restroom facilities on most of the boats used in the lift either, so many got very ill.
Her parents remember that the weather was bad and the water very rough. But they said, “If we had to do it all over again we wouldn’t think twice. There’s nothing more important than a person’s freedom.”
Because of a poor economy amd people starving throughout Cuba, President Fidel Castro allowed more than 10,000 Cubans to take asylum with the Peruvian Embassy. But more had to be done.
An agreement between Cuba and the United States — and pressed by Latino Americans — gave permission for the boatloads of people to head from Cuba across the 90 miles of rough water to Key West.
Serrano’s parents were among the first to leave during the first month of the boatlift.
They were fortunate, they said, to be in a boat that had a captain. They said many people paddled on homemade rafts and anything else they could find or build.
When the boat riders first arrived, there were so many people there was no shelter for everyone, so many, including the Serranos, were sent to California with the help of churches. There were no real living quarters for them there either.
They said it was difficult to find even enough tents for so many people at once.
“My mother says it was just like the beginning of the movie Scarface, with tents and people everywhere” Serrano said.
Her parent’s early lives were instructive, she said, and taught her never to give up.
After only a few years of day labor, her father found a permanent job at Sears, and later he was able to transfer to Tampa.
“They feared the earthquakes in California,” she said. “Especially the big one, I think it was around 1987,” she said.
Her father later opened his own landscaping business and also worked as a subcontractor for Sears. He learned English on the job, but Serrano learned in school.
“I remember being in classes where they were speaking English and not knowing one word that was spoken,” she said.
Serrano said she can’t praise the ESOL (English as a Second Language) program enough. Gradually, the English words began to make sense.
“I still think in Spanish,” she said — without any accent or hesitation.
Four years after they arrived in the States, her brother Pedro was born. The family continued to progress, Serrano said, and that she was mentored by Virginia Perez, an educator. “She’ll never know what it meant to me to have someone help and mentor me so much,” she said.
Both Dr. Allen Witt, president of the South County college, and Kimberly French, community relations manager at HCC, praised Serrano. She was appointed dean pf Student Services on Jan. 17.
Each campus has two deans, and Dr. Craig Hardesty is academic dean.
A letter from Dr. Witt explains to the faculty that Serrano was chosen after serving as assistant dean under the campus’s founding dean of student services, Steven Stancil.
“Ms. Serrano has served the college for more than 13 years in progressively responsible positions of Student Services,” Witt said.
According to Serrano’s resume, she began as a clerical aide in 1998 and the following year was promoted to Student Assistant, helping parents and students through the financial aid process. From there she became a financial aid technician and, by 2005, a financial aid counselor. By 2008, she was managing the Financial Aid Department, and then became Student Services Manager in 2011.
She has been acting dean of Student Services throughout most of 2013.
“Ms. Serrano is one of the most talented student services professionals that I have ever worked with,” Witt said. “She rose through the HCC ranks, through talent, intelligence and old-fashioned hard work. Our campus is fortunate that she applied to lead our student services team. Any community college would have been lucky to find her.” Witt said he credits Stancil with recognizing that she could head the department after his retirement.
Serrano’s goals include allowing staff to be as innovative as possible, letting people “think outside the box” to find new ways of accomplishing goals and also promoting more staff and faculty interaction with students in their projects.
“I am open to suggestion and anxious to move forward,” she said.