In memoriam: Gabriel R. Serna

September 8, 2022

Michigan State University Assistant Professor Gabriel R. Serna passed away on Aug. 17, 2022.

Serna joined the college in 2018 as a member of the Department of Educational Administration’s Higher, Adult and Lifelong Education (HALE) unit. His research used quantitative approaches with a deeply critical perspective to examine higher education economics, finance and policy.

“A brilliant scholar and kind professor, Dr. Serna worked to affirm and uplift students like myself who came from similar backgrounds as himself,” said Dianey R. Leal-Sigoloff, a HALE doctoral candidate. Serna supported Leal with her proposal defense and served on her dissertation committee.

Leal-Sigoloff continued: “He was an unapologetic scholar who dedicated his career to calling out systems and practices that worked against minoritized students. While he left us too soon, his mentorship and work to provide students with better access to postsecondary opportunities will continue through former students, colleagues and friends.”

Serna’s research centered on undocumented students, students from lower socio-economic backgrounds and how economics, finance and policy could be changed to improve access for students to higher education. His goal was to help “practitioners and researchers explore and examine new ways of being thoughtful of the role identities, privilege and power play that manifest themselves in policy discourse, economic decisions and allocation of scare resources.”

He dreamed about education policies that worked with students, not for them. In his own words, “letting [students] have voice in the process and bringing that voice to life.”  

Serna was a first-generation, Hispanic college student from Las Cruces, New Mexico—facts he proudly shared with students and colleagues.

“He was always willing to share his personal story with students to encourage them to keep pushing and believing in themselves,” said Leslie Gonzales, MSU associate professor of higher education. “He was a man of color who had been pushed out of high school and finished his GED before [earning several higher degrees, including a] Ph.D. from Indiana University, Bloomington. Thus, while he did not necessarily envision himself as a college professor in his younger years, he eventually became a scholar who studied pressing issues. His papers have been published in many outlets, and he had recently been awarded a best paper award from a scholarly society. More than anything, Gabriel brought an interesting, dynamic and caring ethos to the department.”

He came to MSU with more than 15 years of experience in higher education, including as director of programming at New Mexico State University, assistant director of admissions at the University of Kentucky and as part of the faculty of Virginia Tech University, where he also served as the director of the higher education program.

His work was published in a variety of journals, including the Journal of Education Finance, Studies in Higher Education, Education Policy Analysis Archives and the Journal of Student Financial Aid.