Merced County Times Newspaper
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Women are leading the way at Merced College

Merced College standout women: LaDenta Smith, Andrea Garibay, Sabrina Frias and Jazmin Serrano.
Merced College standout women: LaDenta Smith, Andrea Garibay, Sabrina Frias and Jazmin Serrano.

By LUCIANA CHAVEZ

Do you become a leader with the right job title?

Or does the universe anoint you when your talent and skill combine to demand it?

LaDenta Smith, Andrea Garibay, Sabrina Frias and Tzitzijank Jazmin Serrano all fit one or both of those descriptions in their daily work at Merced College.

They all deserve the spotlight.

We highlight female leaders during Women’s History Month because nurturing more women leaders will improve representation and lift up the 53 percent of California Community College students who are female.

We spoke to each about leadership, about how they inspire people to, as Dolly Parton says, “Dream more, learn more, do more and become more.”

Quietly leading when need arises

LaDenta Smith made it clear that as the CalWORKS Student Support Coordinator at Merced College, the buck does not stop with her. She has a boss, and her boss has bosses.

“It’s hard to think of myself as a leader within my office, because we are such a good team working together,” she said. “To me, being a leader means overseeing something and doing what you have to so the team succeeds.”

Smith, now in her 27th year, has quietly partnered with EOPS/CARE Program colleague Nora Martinez to create a campus support group for single mothers. The duo saw a need and rushed to meet it, like good leaders do.

Herself a mother and grandmother, Smith participates in activities with the mothers’ group. She said she’s not too old to learn. Smith will work a 28th year. Her work is that fulfilling.

“I get to see what impact this work has on our students,” she said. “I met one of my former students because she was the nurse assigned to me in the hospital. … It makes me so happy to see that our students have reached their goals. Students are our focus at Merced College, and we’re known by their success, not our own.”

Leader wherever

Enrollment Retention Specialist Andrea Garibay has worked all over the college since 2002, all in public-facing roles.

Everyone heard her voice when she worked on the campus switchboard. In admissions, she met students at the start of their journey. From the welcome center, she is the first contact for local high school students, when she helps them enroll in the next step on their journeys.

The work experience she has gained at the college means she’s constantly setting a tone for students, constantly leading them to a good start.

With natural skill at taking the initiative, Garibay found it easy to do the same at her church. Now she has an opportunity to become a spiritual leader. She’s been a member of House of Prayer in Merced for 10 years, eventually getting involved with the children’s ministry. Weeks ago, she was asked to become an associate pastor and official leader of the youth ministry.

“It feels like such a huge responsibility,” she said. “But it was an honor to have God put me in that position. I feel that’s what I do at work and at the church — helping.”

That’s not her job. It’s her calling.

“For me, leadership is guiding people to achieve their goals,” Garibay said. “Doing that has been life-changing. … God gave me a heart to love on people. I want to continue helping them succeed.”

Growing into a leader

Sabrina Frias was a teen mother before she got the chance to be anything else. It didn’t hinder her development as a leader.

“To me, leadership is practicing what you preach,” said the counseling liaison, who works with both the counseling staff and the deans. “It’s doing the small things, being knowledgeable, transparent and open-minded, and communicating with everyone.”

Frias recently co-chaired the working group charged with overhauling and streamlining the graduation application process. She also now co-chairs the Student Services Master Planning Committee, a group tasked with providing oversight and reviewing program efficacy.

She credits former work study boss and current colleague Tomasia Drummond for first seeing her potential as a part-time adjunct counselor. Frias then moved up to full-time counseling and now serves as the liaison between counseling staff and administration.

“[Drummond] was always telling me, ‘You’ll never have to tell anyone how hard you work,” she said. “They will see it.’”

There have been growing pains, but necessary ones.

“I had to learn my boundaries and know I didn’t have to try to make everyone happy,” Frias said. “That doing my job within those parameters is enough.”

She feels the college has always seen her potential.

“The college has supported me maturing as a leader by recognizing me, like allowing me to be part of committees and work groups they felt I could contribute to,” she said. “I genuinely feel if you want to take a leadership role here, Merced College will empower you to do so.”

Leader in name and deed

Jazmin Serrano has been the Acting Director of Student Services on the Los Banos campus since July 14, 2021, taking over the position when the previous director left unexpectedly. She had no time to prepare, but embraced the chance.

“Transitioning back to campus from going virtual has been difficult — seeing my staff working hard and succeeding, but always kind of being shorthanded,” she said. “At first, it was hard for me to understand that we would be OK. We’re not the only ones missing staff. Once I embraced that, I didn’t overthink it. As a leader, I always have problems to solve right in the moment. Now we just do the best we can. I remind everyone we’re going to be OK.”

Serrano said she used to think leadership was about first having a title, that leaders were extroverts destined to stand out.

“I never saw myself as a leader,” she said. “Now, for me, leadership is knowing what I’m capable of and setting an example for others. It’s always doing your best. It’s being as human as possible encouraging others, even while developing yourself. … I finally realized that is leadership.”

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