Cerebral Palsy is No Barrier to an MBA

Serena Luo makes her way from China to Hawaii to Riverside

Serena Luo

By Amy Zahn

Twenty-five-year-old MBA student Serena Luo may be far from her home in Chengdu, China, but she isn’t letting anything stand in the way of her success, despite the unique challenges she faces from a brain disorder she developed at the age of four.

Luo has cerebral palsy, a condition that restricts mobility, affecting her speech and rendering her unable to walk without assistance around the UC Riverside campus. However, her disability never restricted her capacity to dream big. She said she remembers hearing a group of people speaking English on the street one day during primary school, and she knew she wanted to understand the larger world.

But despite her enthusiasm, moving to the U.S. in 2010 to study accounting at the University of Hawaii proved to be a harrowing experience for Luo. Having no friends and coming from a place where things were always done for her, she had to find a car, a place to live and navigate a language barrier — all on her own, and for the first time.

“I was too special when I was young in China,” she said, explaining that her parents had always ensured that things were arranged for her. “That’s why I came to the U.S. I came here to do more challenging things.”

After completing her undergraduate degree in 2013, Luo was ready to move to a bigger city. But before enrolling at UC Riverside in Oct. 2014, Luo jumped head first into a real-life business venture when she helped her family purchase, renovate and sell a 25-unit apartment complex in Loma Linda.

“I didn’t earn much, but I learned a lot from that project,” she said.

Along with juggling the responsibilities of handling tenants, Luo worked to maintain a positive relationship with the manager she hired — feats that, without a solid set of communication skills, proved challenging.

It was that experience that prompted her to apply to MBA programs, when it became clear that, being as shy and reserved as she was at the time, she was not ready to lead or manage a business.

“I had not learned enough,” she said. “I needed to improve myself more.”

She said UC Riverside’s program initially caught her eye when a friend who studied in the MBA program recommended it to her, and she decided to apply when she learned about the facilities and networking opportunities available there.

“What (students) accumulate is not only what they learn from the textbook, but they establish their own network from their cohorts,” said Steve Chen, director of international relations for UC Riverside’s School of Business Administration (SoBA). The school is also surrounded by different businesses, many of them international, that provide students with business and internship opportunities, he added.

But along with a quality education, Luo needed to be at a place that would accommodate her disability. UCR’s Office of Student Special Services offers a variety of services to students with disabilities, like priority seating, note-takers and extended homework and exam time.

UCR has approximately 350 students with registered disabilities, said Laura Riley, director of Student Special Services. “We give them what they need to level the playing field, so it might be extended test time, or materials in electronic formats compatible with a voice reader,” Riley said. They may need adaptive equipment for the computer, or transportation help. We also have a testing center right here in our office, and we coordinate the interpreters and the captionists.”

Since coming to UCR, things have changed for Luo. She has combined what she learns from her textbooks with the real-world awareness she has acquired from her professors and classmates to become a mature, independent person who isn’t afraid to communicate with and open up to others.

She came to UCR to learn how to be a leader, she said, something she feels is more important than facts and figures. Those who know her believe she has done just that.

Chen, who has become well acquainted with Luo, says he has seen a fundamental change in her as a result of her time here.

“After one year or a year and a half that she attended UCR, everything changed very dramatically,” he said. “She’s matured, grown up, and everyone else is embracing that.”

Yunzeng Wang, dean of the School of Business Administration, said the school consistently offers opportunities. “Whether national and international, our diverse student body all share the same passion to aim high and achieve success, two qualities that are essential for professionals in the workforce.”

When she completes her degree in June 2016, Luo hopes to gain experience in international trade, and eventually create her own nutrition-based product to help people live healthier lifestyles.

As for her disability, Luo hopes her experience with it can help others with their own. She encourages her fellow students to be open minded and not to be as afraid of opening up as she once was. “Talk to your professors and talk to your classmates,” she said. “They are willing to help you.”

The Student Special Services Office is located at 125 Costo Hall, and can be reached at (951)-827-3861.

Archived under: Business, Health, Inside UCR, , , , ,

Top of Page