By Mike Carlson

“I am writing you on behalf of my 81-year-old father, Carlos Manuel Sera, who attended Georgetown University many years ago.” So began an email from Mayte Sera Weitzman to the Office of the President of Georgetown University, sent on Sept. 15, 2017. Like a prayer pointed to the heavens, Weitzman sent her message with little more than a seed of hope and a deep faith in what she calls “moments of divine providence.”

Such hope and faith would not be foreign to Carlos Sera, who was born on Nov. 9, 1936, in Washington, D.C. The two greatest influences on his life would be the Catholic Church and the island of Cuba. He spent his Sundays as an altar server at the Shrine of the Sacred Heart church and his summers in Cuba, swimming in the ocean and playing basketball. His father was a high-ranking diplomat in the Cuban embassy in Washington, D.C., and the Sera family had international sensibilities in a time when the world was large and foreign travel still exotic.

A product of the Washington, D.C., Catholic school system, he graduated from Archbishop John Carroll High School before enrolling as a business student at Georgetown University in 1955.

“I was always enthralled by the atmosphere,” Sera told the Washington Post in May 2018. “And being Cuban and being in the diplomatic corps, well that opened up a lot of doors with other foreign students whose parents were also diplomats.”

Even 60 years ago, Georgetown had an international flavor, and the campus was a natural habitat for a student like Sera. He played for the basketball team, joined clubs, and generally thrived. In 1958 he met his future wife, Miriam, who was attending a nearby university. For three and a half years, the fates seemed to line up for Sera. He was the right person, in the right place, at the right time.

Until he wasn’t.

In January of 1959, Fidel Castro’s forces overthrew the U.S.-backed government in Cuba. It was a boulder thrown into the pond of international relations, and the ripples traveled far.

Every Cuban-American family has a story from that disruption, few of them happy. Sera was no different. His father’s job vanished. Family and friends were displaced.

“I could see my whole life just withering away,” Sera told the Washington Post.  “I saw all my expectations of what I thought would be my future dissolve.”

With an offer from Sears, Roebuck, and Co. on the table, Sera felt an obligation to begin his professional life and contribute to his family. Sera went on to build a successful career, travel the world, and become a pillar of the business and faith community in Houston where he started his own family. He passed his love of Georgetown and his deep respect for the Jesuit tradition on to his children.

In all that time, no one ever guessed that Carlos Sera never graduated from Georgetown University.

The 59th-Year Senior

In the fall of 2017, Weitzman’s teenage daughter, one of Sera’s eight grandchildren, took a college tour of Georgetown. She brought her grandfather a Hoya sweatshirt and a question: Where was his college diploma? After all, the walls of his home were covered with awards and accolades he had collected throughout his career. Sera finally unburdened himself and revealed that he never graduated from Georgetown

“I do not want to call it a secret, but he did guard it. We had an idea that something painful had happened. That is why we never brought it up,” says Weitzman. “During the revolution so many things happened to our family members. There are so many stories of sacrifices and suffering.”

A few days later, Weitzman was working at her desk when a “holy spirit” moment struck her. She typed “Georgetown Office of the President” into Google and found an email address. “I went straight to the top,” she laughs. She described her father’s story and asked about the possibility of Sera completing his degree. She ended her message with a simple question: “Where do we begin?”

Weitzman was flabbergasted when she received a response from the president’s office 48 hours later, telling her exactly how to begin. After two more days and several more emails, Sera’s transcript landed on the desk of Daniel Minot, senior associate director, Undergraduate Program Office, McDonough School of Business.

“When we put together all the puzzle pieces, we figured out he was only four credits shy,” says Minot. “This is case in point of the Jesuit mission playing itself out and how we support our students whether they are 20 years old or 81 years old.”

When crafting the appropriate curriculum for Sera, Minot contemplated the Jesuit idea of cura personalis, or “care for the whole person.” Sera was 81 years old, living with symptoms of congestive heart failure, and residing 1,500 miles from the Georgetown campus. Minot felt that a single four-credit class of independent study was the best course of action.

“There is not a set policy in place for someone to return after a 60-year hiatus. Therefore, this required flexibility and outside-the-box thinking on our part, collaboration with several colleagues in our office and the Dean’s Office, and ensuring that all of our actions were grounded in our Jesuit value — ensuring that at the end of the day, we were doing what was best for the student and the family,” says Minot.

Minot sent the plan to Weitzman on Dec. 2, 2017, letting her know that Sera was ready to be enrolled in the spring 2018 semester. Weitzman and her family presented the paperwork as a wrapped gift to her father on Christmas Eve along with a decorated poster board that read “Georgetown Graduation May 2018.”

Although Sera had struggled with his health recently, he had one response to the gift.

“OK, let’s get busy.”

Hitting the Books

Distinguished Teaching Professor Thomas B. Cooke came to Georgetown as a faculty member in 1976. He is the second-longest-serving professor at the business school and has earned three degrees from the university. With a specialty in tax law (Sera’s missing course) and a deep love of Georgetown University, Cooke was a natural choice to helm Sera’s independent study.  

“Over the phone I could hear this man’s love of the institution. As far as I am concerned he has been a Hoya for his entire life,” says Cooke. “Anything I could do to fill in that final piece of the puzzle, I was more than willing to do.”

Cooke and Sera got to work in January 2018. Just a few weeks before, Congress had passed Bill H.R.1., known as The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. Cooke devised a research project and final paper for Sera. The assignment was to analyze how the bill would serve both individuals and corporations. Sera dove in with gusto.

“I could not get over his love and his level of enthusiasm. I wish half of my undergraduate class displayed that level of enthusiasm,” says Cooke. “This man, come hell or high water, was graduating in May and was going to do whatever it took to avail himself to this wonderful opportunity.”

“In many ways Carlos represents exactly what Georgetown is all about."
— Paul Almeida, Dean and William R. Berkley Chair, Professor of Strategy

Sera’s semester had obstacles that most undergraduates could not imagine. In the spring, he suffered a significant stroke and was hospitalized. Weitzman brought him his laptop and the stack of articles on the tax bill sent to him by family members from all over the world.

The work continued. The thought of quitting never occurred to him.

The hospital stay did not slow down Sera’s irrepressible Cubano charm either. Everywhere he went he found ways to bond with those around him, and the hospital was no different. His Ghanaian nurse was delighted to learn that he had visited her home country. When the speech therapist at the hospital, a fellow Hoya, learned that he was getting ready to graduate from her alma mater, she scheduled extra sessions to expedite his recovery.

After a semester of research and dozens of interviews with former business colleagues, Sera submitted his final paper.

“There is no doubt his corporate experience and his contacts were a big help in doing his research and expressing his opinions,” says Cooke. “I was very proud to give him a high grade of A and to allow him to earn his diploma in May.”

Graduation Day

Throughout the spring semester, Minot, Cooke, and Senior Associate Dean of the Undergraduate Program Patricia Grant prayed that Sera would be able to attend graduation ceremonies. But the stroke and persistent symptoms of congestive heart failure made it impossible for Sera to travel. Instead, the Undergraduate Program Office had his diploma printed, framed, and sent to Houston, along with a cap and gown.

On graduation day, Sera and his family crowded in front of a laptop to watch the live stream of the ceremony and listened for his name to be called. When Grant explained from the graduation platform that Sera had just completed a degree that began in the 1950s, the crowd roared. Sera shakily rose to his feet to honor the moment.

“It was amazing,” says Weitzman. “This was such a big deal for him. It was something he had waited for all his life. We were worried about his breathing and his heart because he was so emotional.”

“Over the phone I could hear this man’s love of the institution. As far as I am concerned he has been a Hoya for his entire life."
— Thomas B. Cooke, Distinguished Teaching Professor

Sera is widely believed to be Georgetown’s oldest graduate, although it is impossible to cull through 200 years of records to verify. It is even more likely that he is the oldest student to graduate from the McDonough School of Business. To honor his decades-long journey, Dean Paul Almeida flew to Houston the following week to personally congratulate the recent graduate.  

“When we say ‘women and men for others’ or ‘serving the common good’ this is exactly what we mean,” says Almeida. “Here is a member of our community who loves Georgetown dearly. Through Carlos, we are able to serve part of our community and serve each other. Compared to the other schools and universities I have had the privilege to know, I find Georgetown’s sense of mission and the sense of community much deeper.”

In the Sera family, a visit from any Hoya is a happy occasion, but a university dean calls for a special celebration. Almeida arrived at the Sera house in time for lunch. Traditional Cuban lechon was served on the china that Sera’s mother would use when entertaining heads of state at the consulate in Washington, D.C. Wine flowed and so did the stories of Georgetown in the 1950s. Almeida was delighted to learn that Miriam was wearing a Georgetown pin her husband gave her when they were dating.

“The warmth of Carlos and his family and the gratefulness to Georgetown was a reminder of who we are when we are at our best, what we represent to the world, and what we can do to the world,” says Almeida.

For Sera, expressing his feelings to Almeida about the dramatic series of events — the confession, the hospital, the diploma — that served as the climax to his six-decade odyssey, was almost impossible.

“There is no way that I can thank them for this opportunity that they have given me to get my diploma, say I am from Georgetown. I have always been a Hoya,” Sera told Poets & Quants.

A Hoya Forever

Carlos Sera completed his 63-year quest to become a Georgetown graduate on May 18, 2018. Six weeks later he completed a longer journey. Sera passed away from complications related to congestive heart failure on June 30.

“He was so resilient. I cannot tell you how many times the doctor told us that his heart is really weak and that he is not going to do very well, and then he would go on years!” says Weitzman. “We knew that whenever God decided he would go, that would be the moment. But we were just never ready because he was always bouncing back.”

Weitzman informed the Georgetown faculty immediately, and the very first bouquet of flowers to arrive at the Sera home was from Georgetown University. A Hoya to the end, Sera’s obituary described his recent graduation. A Georgetown pennant was prominently displayed at his memorial service.

The careers of Almeida, Minot, and Cooke represent decades of service to higher learning. They all have their own memories of special students and obstacles overcome, but none of them expect to ever come across a story that rivals the life of Carlos Sera.

“In many ways Carlos represents exactly what Georgetown is all about,” says Almeida. “It is about a lifelong connection, about truly caring for people, about learning in ways that are not necessarily restricted to the classroom.”

 

Published in Georgetown Business magazine, Fall 2018