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Serena Worthington, 2014 McNair Scholar
Serena Worthington, 2014 McNair Scholar

Serena Worthington, a senior double-majoring in Spanish and Health Studies, learned an invaluable lesson about working in diverse communities during a research trip to Nicaragua. 

Serena was part of a Portland State contingent visiting the country led by Dr. Margaret Neal, head of the Portland State’s Institute on Aging in the College of Urban and Public Affairs.  As part of the two-week summer trip, the group had planned to build a footpath at a rural nursing home. When they arrived, however, the nuns who operated the home had a different idea. They told their visitors that what they really needed was to have stones collected to construct a canal to draw water down a hillside, which would clear the way for the path to be built in the future. So Serena and the others spent a good portion of the next week gathering stones, much to the nuns’ delight.

“That experience gave me so much insight,” says Serena, who graduates in December and plans to earn her doctorate in community health at Portland State. “I learned you just don’t go into a country and tell them what they need. You have to listen to really help.”

The main purpose of Serena's two-week trip to Nicaragua was to work on her senior capstone project— a survey of young Nicaraguans and  their perceptions of aging. The trip was an opportunity to combine her interest in aging issues as well as her skills in Spanish.

Margaret Neal was the faculty member who first encouraged Serena to apply for the prestigious McNair Program to help fund the trip. The McNair Program is a federal initiative to support low-income and first-generation college students (such as Worthington) in pursuing PhDs.

Serena's willingness to take on new challenges makes her stand out, Dr. Neal says. “She’s capable, inquisitive, bright.  enthusiastic. Working with Serena has been a great experience for me, too... She is very well positioned to do an excellent job in graduate school.”

Taking advantage of international study opportunities has been an invaluable part of Serena's education at Portland State. Two summers ago, Serena traveled to Argentina to do community health work thanks to a federal Gilman Scholarship.

“Going abroad makes you think about issues in a global way,” she says. “Not only does it teach you about the world, but also what you think about yourself, your home, your education.”

>> Read more about Serena's work

>> Read more about the Ronald E. McNair Scholars Program