Open Doors: Serena Wong, B.S. ’11

SJT scholar and first-generation college graduate finds meaning helping low-income students access higher education and thrive.

November 7, 2022

Serena Wong in the mountains with Open Doors text

On a clear night last year, Serena Wong walked out of the house where she’d been staying in the Rocky Mountains. The COVID-19 pandemic meant Wong, then director of new product management at American Express, was working remotely. So she’d seized the opportunity to be truly remote—a “digital nomad,” traveling with friends to Utah, Montana and Wyoming.

“It was the middle of the night, and I remember asking, ‘What’s that streak in the sky?’ And everyone’s like, ‘That’s the Milky Way,’” Wong recalled. “After being in Zoom meetings all day, to step out and really be in nature was so grounding.”

Wong grew up in Washington, D.C., where the stars are rarely so visible. But she’s long been interested in expanding her horizons. The daughter of immigrants from Hong Kong, Wong knew from an early age that she would attend college. She settled on the George Washington University because, as a high school student at nearby School Without Walls, she’d already taken GW classes and was familiar both with the world-class faculty and with the global perspective GW offered.

“GW being so international meant I was hearing all these perspectives from other students—someone from Lebanon talking about experiencing hyperinflation and what that means for them, for example,” Wong said of the microeconomics and other GW courses she took in high school. “Hearing those real-life examples was so enriching to help me understand the curriculum.”

When Wong received a Stephen Joel Trachtenberg (SJT) Scholarship in 2007, she knew her family wouldn’t need to worry about college tuition, housing or other costs. At GW, that aid gave her freedom not only from financial burdens but also from psychological ones: With her scholarship as a basic safety net, she was able to take chances she wouldn’t otherwise have seized, especially as a first-generation college student.

“Taking risks wasn’t something my parents were very comfortable with—coming to America was their one huge jump, and I think they were like, ‘We don’t want you to have to take as many risks as we did,’” Wong said. “Throughout my childhood that was one of the main cultural threads for my parents: get really good grades, continue to kind of be status quo, and don’t rock the boat.”

But with her scholarship as a buffer, Wong could rock the boat. She could try new things—succeeding at many, failing at others and learning from every experience. In her first year at GW, Wong applied for and received a David L. Boren Award. She studied abroad in China for two months, including a stay in Beijing for the 2008 Olympics. It was her first international trip other than visiting family in Hong Kong.

“I am not perceived as Chinese when I’m in China, because they’re like, ‘You're American,’” Wong said, laughing. “Being faced with some of those very interesting cultural contrasts was a learning experience as well. I started thinking, ‘OK, what more can I do to put myself in uncomfortable situations and still thrive?’”

Wong kept doing exactly that. She studied abroad again, this time for a year at the London School of Economics. After receiving her B.S. in accounting from the GW School of Business in 2011, she worked as a financial consultant for a few years. She said her most interesting project was working locally with the New Orleans court system to enact compensation programs for small businesses affected by the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

“Coming out of that experience, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, small businesses are the backbone to our country,’ so I was looking for opportunities to help support small businesses,” she said. “And that led me to essentially an eight-year career at American Express, where I was part of their global commercial services business unit.”

Wong (far right) with Minds Matter mentees. (Serena Wong)

At the same time, Wong was learning something she would realize again, years later, under the Milky Way: Work couldn’t be everything. To find meaning, she needed to “give back” to her community. Wong began volunteering with Minds Matter, a nonprofit that builds years-long relationships between accomplished students from low-income backgrounds and adult mentors who can help them get into and thrive in college. Sometimes, she said, it was a little like working with her younger self—paying forward what she’d learned from her own friends and mentors. In particular, she thought of her involvement with GW's Elizabeth Somers Women's Leadership Program (WLP), which she credits with giving her "coaching, diversity of thought and confidence."

“I was reflecting on all the instances in which, throughout my college years and even in high school, I had consistent touch points with mentors along the way,” she said. “I found it really helpful and empowering. So I thought, if I'm looking to invest my time, this is one place where I found purpose.”

Wong has volunteered with Minds Matter in New York City since 2014, working first as a mentor, then as a team leader, then as a program director. A few of the students she worked with ended up attending GW themselves.

“Many of these students are supporting their families, working multiple jobs, and they can’t even fathom leaving the city to go to school,” Wong said. “If we can remove the barrier of finance as a component of their decision making, that really allows these students to think beyond their means into what really excites them and motivates them. That’s part of the value and impact of scholarships.”

In a way, Wong’s SJT scholarship had an exponential effect: By opening the door to GW for her, she introduced another generation of talented students into the GW community too.

“Going to college really did mean that doors opened for me, and access has been such a theme,” she said. “Education doesn’t just open you up academically or open your perspectives on the world. It’s also about hands-on experiences that open further doors and expose you to opportunities that you wouldn't have ever considered. I would say that GW time and time again, through the financial access that they unlocked for me, allowed me to seek those opportunities.”

Since her “digital nomad” period, Wong has taken another flying leap: She left her position at American Express to become senior director of LeafLink, a digital supply chain platform for brands and retailers in the emerging cannabis industry to sell, order, pay, store and ship wholesale products.

“I wanted to be much more entrepreneurial and agile and work in a startup space, and I would say that my time at GW allowed me to feel confident taking risks—having and embracing a growth mindset,” she said. “When there are changes out of your control, you have to be able to say, ‘Yes, this is really painful, but how do we learn from this and make it a positive?’ And that’s the mentality that’s carried me through.”

Open Doors: The Centuries Initiative for Scholarships & Fellowships charts a course to increase access to the transformative power of a GW degree. Learn more about how GW is expanding opportunity for the next generation of leaders.