Commencement eve. For college seniors, it’s a time that’s rightfully dedicated to unadulterated, no-holds-barred celebrations as students mark the completion of obtaining their hard-earned degrees. Still, Georgetown University Professor Thomas Cooke — who teaches taxation and the legal environment of business — always admonishes students not to party too hard the night before graduation. This year, he says that especially goes for Carlos Sera, an 81-year-old former student of McDonough School of Business who — this spring semester — returned to his undergraduate studies in order to earn his Bachelor of Science in Business Administration degree.
TURNING BACK THE HANDS OF TIME
Sera’s story is a fairy tale of sorts. While attending McDonough as an undergraduate student, he was forced to leave the school in 1959 when the Castro government came to power, as his father was a Cuban diplomat to the United States. Just four credits shy of maxing out his degree requirements and earning his diploma, he left the school and simply headed out into the working world where he made a living as an international businessman.
“I joined a firm out of Evansville, Indiana that was setting up a complete service to their clients for anything that was shipped nationally or internationally,” says Sera. “The international part was my part.”
Much of his job dealt with moving equipment to different parts of the world for clients, he says. “It made me go all over the place,” Sera recalls. “At one point, I had 250,000 air miles three years in a row. I flew more than the pilots did.”
Just three and a half years ago, Sera slipped off his traveling shoes and retired, but he says the fact that he never had a chance to complete his degree has always stuck with him. As fate would have it, a college visit to Georgetown by one of his grandchildren, would be all that it took to turn back the hands of time and grant a decades old wish.
‘ABUELO, DID YOU GRADUATE?’
“My daughter visited Georgetown knowing all of her life that her granddad is a Georgetown Hoya,” says Sera’s daughter Mayte Sera Weitzman. “She wanted to get him a sweatshirt at the bookstore and when she came back home, she brought it to him. They were talking about her graduating from high school this year when she asked him, ‘Abuelo, did you graduate?’ And he told the story.”
Afterward, Weitzman recalls sitting at her work desk and seeing a story that described a situation similar to her father’s and what had happened to him. “I decided, wouldn’t it be great to see him get his degree after all these years? So I sent a letter after doing a simple internet Google search; I didn’t have any contacts whatsoever,” Weitzman explains. “I sent a letter to the office of the president and, to my surprise, I got a response pretty quickly.”
It was that response that put the wheels in motion. From the office of the president, Weitzman was connected with the registrar’s office who helped excavate her father’s transcripts. From there, she was connected to Daniel Minot, senior associate director of the business school’s undergraduate program, whom Weitzman describes as the angel who made everything come together.
“It landed, providentially, on the desk of someone who was incredibly kind,” she says. “It took him some time to pull bulletins from 1959 to determine classes that were equivalent to what he’d take today. He looked at his record to see what he was missing. Then, on December 21, I got a letter that said, ‘We’ve got it!’ They told me, ‘This is what it requires from him and we can do it. We have a professor to offer him an independent study.’ That professor was Thomas Cooke.”
HOMEWORK FOR CHRISTMAS
All of this was happening, unbeknownst to Sera, until Christmas Day 2017 when his daughter gifted him with a small box inviting him to Georgetown University’s May 2018 graduation along with information about the four credit hour tax class and full explanation of what it all meant.
“‘You gave Abuelo homework for Christmas,’” Weitzman says the family asked as they jokingly poked fun at the once-in-a-lifetime news. Yet, Carlos Sera was thrilled.
He got to work this spring semester to complete his last class. The focus of the tax course — taken 100% remotely — would be on the recent tax bill passed by Congress. Sera’s assignment was to research the bill and write a term paper about the implications and impact of it.
“We were lucky in that Congress and the president had just signed into law the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act,” says Cooke, adding when he learned of Mr. Sera’s story he was determined to do everything in his power to help him out. “It was brand new,” Cooke continues. “We could focus on that and look at how it would impact individuals.”
To complete the paper, Sera says he interviewed lots of people both in person and on the telephone; people who were directly influenced and those impacted by this new legislation. “I got all kinds of goods and bads, shoulds and should nots, and so forth and I tried to express that in my study,” he says.
SIXTY YEARS LATER, FOUR CREDITS IN THE MAKING
“It was a lot of work, a lot of hours, a lot of retyping, and of course the basic old-fashioned research look behind the wall of every new legislation that was going to be coming out that would be affected by the new rules,” Sera says. “Even to the point that a question was asked how does this affect the charities?”
Still, Sera says it was a team effort and gives credit to his daughter Mayte and other children for their assistance. “Since I’m retired, it gave me something to do,” he says. “My youngest daughter was an enormous help to me. She kept me in line and kept coming up with new subject items we needed to take a look at.”
Says Weitzman, “He got to work to put the assignment together. He did it the old school way. Most of us, when we research something we go to Google. He picked up the phone, called friends, held meetings, talked to people at gas stations. Everyone’s affected by taxes. Everyone he could talk to he did, then put it all into a report.”
The final product was 28 pages of grade ‘A’ content. “Carlos brought to the table years of experience on the corporate side, then conducted research and provided commentary on what he had discovered,” Cooke says.
A TOAST TO THE CLASS OF 2018
And with that, his degree requirements were officially complete. Just ahead of graduation, Sera received his cap and gown in the mail. Due to health challenges, he was unable to travel from his home in Houston to Washington D.C. for the big event, but thanks to technology, he and his family gathered together to watch the live stream and to toast their 2018 grad.
So what’s next for the McDonough School’s newest alum? “I’m going to enjoy myself. In the truest sense of the word,” Sera says. “I stopped working three and a half years ago. I figured I didn’t need to do anymore work. I’m going to enjoy my grandchildren and continue to participate as much as I can at my church and help out wherever I can.”
For this experience of a lifetime, Sera extends his utmost gratitude to Georgetown University and the business school. “Georgetown has been extraordinary with this,” he says. “There’s no way that I can thank them for this opportunity that they‘ve given me to get my diploma to have it where I can see it and say I’m from Georgetown. I’ve always been a Hoya.”