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First-gen ASU grad shares her story with local youth


Marlene Ortega ASU grad in her cap and gown and Hispanic Convocation stole

ASU grad Marlene Ortega.

December 14, 2020

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable fall 2020 graduates.

A few years after visiting ASU’s Tempe campus for an AVID event, Sun Devil Marlene Ortega is graduating this semester with a degree in art studies from the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts. Originally from the southeast corner of the state in San Luis, Arizona, Ortega spent her time in college sharing her passion for education through SPARKS, an organization of ASU students who share college readiness resources with families throughout the state.  

Ortega got involved with SPARKS on a whim. One of her close friends suggested the idea, and they both decided to go check out the program. She connected with the mission and has spent the last few years speaking with students from kindergarten to high school about their higher education opportunities.

One of the most important parts of Ortega’s job is to share her Sun Devil story. Ortega told younger students what it was like to navigate the college application process as a first-generation student and that she changed her major three times before deciding to pursue a degree in art studies.

“I know what it feels like being a first-generation student, the fact of not knowing what’s coming next,” she said.

In addition to working for SPARKS, Ortega is also a youth coach for First Star.  She provides guidance to foster youth, and her goal is to help them succeed academically and personally.  

As she wrapped up her time at ASU, Ortega shared more about her Sun Devil story and her plans to attend graduate school in fall 2021. 

Question: What was your “aha” moment when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in?

Answer: I feel like I’ve always liked the arts; I always like creating new stuff and being inspired by anything that’s happening in our community. I feel like with the arts, I was able to say my own story but with a painting or a drawing. I feel like it was my voice.

Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you or changed your perspective?

A: It’s going to be my views on how I see the world and how we are the ones who can transform it. Anything, it is possible … you just need to be able to talk to people and be like “Hey, I want to do this, help me do this.” 

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: In high school, I was an AVID student. We raised money, and we were like “Oh, what’s the closest university we can travel to?” So, it was ASU, and I fell in love with the Tempe campus. … ASU has been really good to me. There’s a lot of resources that any student can use. The way I see it is that you can’t fail a class at ASU. It’s about you just putting in the work and asking for help.

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

A: Paul DeNigris, I feel like he taught me how to do things for passion, not to do things for money. … If you don’t have passion for something, then what’s the whole point of you doing it? 

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: It’s OK if you’re not happy with your major, like I said I changed mine three times. … Take advantage of all the resources that ASU has, all its counseling, advising, career services that are there to help. Get involved with clubs; you will meet amazing people. And by meeting those people, you will get opportunities, whether it’s at ASU or out in the community. People will remember you. 

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?

A: The MU or the Secret Garden.  

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I’m super inspired with education and still would like to promote it a lot, but I also like the arts. So, I’m still planning to continue going to school. I’m applying to grad school again with the Herberger Institute in art education. 

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: Something to support all schools in all Arizona. … Perhaps a gadget that can help all students — it’s all a utensil whether you wanted it to be a pen, a pencil, a crayon.

Written by Claire Muranaka, ASU Student Life

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