Diego Serrano-Rubio: From Learning English to UW Acceptance

When Diego Serrano-Rubio moved from Venezuela to Whatcom County and started attending Lynden High School midway through what would be his freshman year of school, he needed a class designed to help him learn English. 

It turns out Serrano was a quick study and soon he was pulled out of that class and eventually was taking Advanced Placement courses on his way to acceptance into the University of Washington next fall. While the LHS path wasn’t easy, he credits the help of the AVID program and heartwarming help from Lynden staff for helping make it all happen. 

“AVID is where I learned everything,” Serrano says about a class focused on helping students without a family history of attending college to explore the opportunities beyond high school. “I learned how to write an essay, ask questions and take notes. That is what helped me get good grades in my classes and I was able to understand how to do what I needed.” 

AVID is also where Serrano realized UW was his dream school. He visited there during an AVID field trip his sophomore year. “As soon as I moved here, it was always my dream school,” he says. “I really like it.” 

Serrano, who has also made the cheer squad for Husky athletics, will cheer and study math when in Seattle. The love of math started to grow as he learned English. “I realized English and Spanish are two different languages and science might be a little different [based on language], but math is just math,” he says. “Math is just always going to be math, no matter if in English or Spanish.”

The nationwide AVID program has been powerful in Lynden. An acronym for Advancement Via Individual Determination, the program empowers students to solve problems and access available resources. Students apply to join the class that then places a focus on helping them develop the skills, strategies and mindset to achieve in their post-high school education path.

“The path to college is not an easy one,” says Kevin Richins, a LHS teacher and AVID advisor. “There are expectations, deadlines and experiences that students need to have. When you may be the first person in your family that is planning on college, you may not have the knowledge about what you need to do to get there. Students in AVID learn what they need to do to qualify for college and to succeed when they get there.”

Stephanie Garza, who was the advisor for the AVID class of 2021 before leaving the district had previously said she had seen firsthand how the program helps bridge the gap between the students who have huge goals to continue in their education, but need the resources and tools to equip them to get there.

“My view of AVID has changed because I have heard back from so many of the 2021 graduates who are sharing the impact that AVID has had on their lives,” she says. “In the moment, I know that AVID is helping students, but teachers often don’t get to see the fruit of their labor in real time. As students have continued to contact me since they’ve graduated, I’m reminded of the great impact AVID truly does have. My approach has stayed the same: Relationships first. If a student knows I genuinely care about their well-being, the teaching part comes easy.”

Garza saw a powerful growth from AVID students. “They display a level of confidence in their learning abilities, confidence in working with others and confidence within themselves,” she says, “that is usually not there when they first start high school.”

AVID is a way to expose students to a variety of different post-high school pathways, says Erin Shaffer, Lynden counselor. This doesn’t mean just four-year universities, as AVID also encourages students to explore technical programs, community colleges and apprenticeship opportunities. “One of the main goals is for students to think about some form of training after high school and prepare them for following their personal pathway,” she says. 

Getting involved in Lynden High School was made easier for Serrano by the help of Lynden staff. He credits the support of AVID teacher Keith Soltman for teaching him so much in four years and the help in English from Theressa Carey. But it was Laura Toften, a LHS paraeducator, who really made his entry into Lynden so much easier on the non-academic side. 

“She is awesome,” he says. “The only reason I have been doing this well is because of her. She always helps me and helps everyone who needs it.” Serrano says she would even ensure he had rides to and from his house so he could play on the baseball team his first spring in Whatcom County. She attended his games to show additional support. 

Throughout high school, Serrano dabbled in baseball, football and track. But it was cheer that stuck, along with his role as the senior class Inter-High representative for ASB. 

“Diego is a really successful kid,” says David Kish, assistant principal. “We put him in our AVID program quickly and he thrived from there. He really assimilated well into our school’s culture and started taking an active role in sports and activities. He became another kid, but then you realize his backstory, moving here only a few years ago.” 

Kish says AVID helps by putting students in touch with a teacher outside of the normal academic side of education. The teaching of study skills and ability to support them individually helps connect students to school and realize the opportunities beyond high school. The small group opportunities give students a peer group where they get to know each other in a safe space. “It gives them a small family within our school, which is nice,” Kish says. “There can be a fear, a lot of challenges. We are trying to put those kids on [college] campuses and make them realize they can be there.” 

Pushing the students is part of the AVID way. That’s why so many AVID students are involved in AP, Honors or College in the High School classes. Kish says that confidence helps in other ways. Not only was Serrano one of the few students at Lynden accepted into the University of Washington for the fall, he also went down and successfully made the cheer squad. 

Kish says he’s watched Serrano grow both academically and socially in becoming a more confident person. “He is kind, and he is excited,” Kish says. “The way he has high expectations for himself and this vision, I am excited to see what he is going to become.” 

The next steps in Serrano’s life, which begins with his move to the dorms in Seattle for the launch of cheer practices in late July, provide a new start. New starts are scary, he admits, but the move from Venezuela to Lynden for his family to escape the situation in their home country may have been more daunting than the one from Lynden to Seattle. “I am excited I will be doing what I like, which is cheer,” he says. “I am really close to home and can drive back if I want to. I know it is going to be difficult, but I am super excited.”