Oakdale High School senior Serina Ahm has gone through an emotional and academic evolution over the course of her high school career.
Her inspiring story caught the attention of decision-makers at the Jostens organization and she was notified on May 19 as being the only winner of a $10,000 national scholarship from Jostens Renaissance.
The Jostens Renaissance Student Scholarship is awarded to a student who increases their grade point average from the end of their first semester of freshman year to the end of the first semester of their senior year.
“My freshman year, I didn’t really think I was going to go anywhere,” Ahm recalled. “I didn’t think I was very smart … I had low self esteem.”
She reported that at that time, she thought that school wasn’t important and that philosophy showed in her GPA, which was a 1.33 at the end of her first semester in high school.
Around that time, her father had moved out of the area and she didn’t think her family had enough money for her to go any further with education anyway. She noted that she had also had difficulty making friends since she was in elementary school and so she isolated herself, but found solace in reading — something she still enjoys.
While it seemed like any dreams of achieving something for herself had been dashed, things started to look brighter for Ahm in her sophomore year at OHS. She made a couple of friends. One of them, a boy, repeatedly told her she was smart and was genuine in the compliment and she began to feel better about herself. They had a couple of classes together and she said she felt encouraged and wanted her friend to be proud of her, and her grades began to improve.
She added that she just started doing assignments and applying herself, which was not the case her freshman year – something she acknowledges was “not the best choice.”
“It didn’t necessarily feel like it was a decision I was making,” Ahm said about her improving grades. “It just happened over time.”
More changes came for Ahm in her junior year.
“The second thing that kind of took off – I thought my family didn’t have enough money, and so I thought I’d do something else – my stepdad decided to go back to college to make more money. And then I thought I could (go to college).”
Ahm said the combination of these things were what really made an impression on her.
Knowing her story, OHS counselors nominated Ahm for the Jostens Renaissance Student Scholarship. She wrote an essay that told the story of her academic journey and the changes she went through in high school, which was accompanied by a letter of recommendation from OHS college counselor Denise Hitch.
A congratulatory letter to Ahm from Charley Nelson, the Director of Jostens Educator Services, stated that the organization received a “tremendous” number of applications for the scholarship this year. The scholarship winner is decided at the corporate level.
“Traditionally, the increased number of applicants would make the selection process for this award extremely difficult, but your application rose to the top immediately and was a very easy choice,” Nelson wrote to Ahm.
“We’re just very, very proud of her,” Hitch said. “Her sophomore year she did much better… She made a big turnaround after her freshman year and had really good junior and senior years.”
Ahm, an Oakdale student since kindergarten, admitted that sometimes her old thinking creeps into her head and she worries about the mistakes she made in her freshman year.
“Even now I’m still worried about getting into a good university,” she said, “because you have to have good grades and good study skills.”
However, she feels the support from those around her. She plans to get her general education classes at Modesto Junior College before transferring to a four-year university. Her stepdad currently attends MJC and she said her mom may even enroll there, too. She said the thought of all of them going to college is “exciting.” She said she really likes animals and has an interest in becoming a veterinarian.
Ahm said that her parents “screamed” with joy when they heard the news she’d won the award and she added that it’s still sinking for her.
“They were proud of me that I got nominated for it,” she said. “…I didn’t think I was going to win. I’ve never won anything.”
Hitch reported that Jostens Renaissance is about promoting academic excellence. The scholarship isn’t based on need, it’s to recognize and reward a student for their achievement.
“We were just very honored,” Hitch said of Ahm’s award. “They said she’s the right type of student they’re looking for.”
Nelson also wrote in his letter to Ahm that at Jostens Renaissance they are extremely proud and honored to have her join a prestigious group of recipients. Former recipients have attended colleges and universities throughout the United States such as Eckerd College in Florida, Purdue University in Indiana, and University of California, Berkeley.
Ahm is the third OHS student who’s won this special scholarship in the past eight years. Former OHS winners were Katherine Hood and Matt Nicolaysen.
“This speaks to our scholarship program and we work hard to make sure our students apply for these scholarships,” Hitch said, adding that the counselors are glad to see when a student gets on track.
For all that she’s gone through, Ahm has some encouragement for students who may be like her when she was a freshman.
“Don’t really think that things will always be the way they currently are,” she said. “Things change really fast when you don’t really expect it at all.”
Ahm is the daughter of Maureen and Robert Stephens of Oakdale and David Wirths of Southern California. She also has five brothers and sisters at home.
The national-level Jostens Renaissance Student Scholarship is $2,500 annually and renewable for up to four years, for a total of $10,000. Ahm will also receive an Apple iPad2 or MacBook computer of her choice to help her with her studies. She will also be mentioned at the Jostens Renaissance national conference in Anaheim this year.
Ahm also recently won the local-level Jostens Renaissance Most Inspirational Award for bringing up her GPA the most since her freshman year at the annual scholarship and award night for OHS seniors. It, too, included a scholarship as well as a golden eagle perpetual trophy.