First-gen ASU grad shares her story with local youth

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.   Marlene Ortega ASU grad in her cap and gown and Hispanic Convocation stole ASU grad Marlene Ortega. Download Full Image

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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ASU's Fall 2020 graduates urged to write the charter of their own futures

December 14, 2020

Virtual commencement features augmented reality app and images of graduates tossing their caps in their backyards and living rooms, along with other traditional elements

Even in the midst of a pandemic, Arizona State University’s fall 2020 graduates were encouraged to be happy about their achievements and were assured that they are ready for the future.

“I take great pride in the talent our students have demonstrated and the compassion our students have brought to the table,” ASU President Michael M. Crow said during the commencement video Monday morning. “I’ve seen tremendous creativity.

“We’ve had student groups build mobile distributed PPE manufacturing systems. We’ve seen huge student engagement in our missions off Earth. And we’ve seen huge development at the university in sustainable systems and sustainable technologies.”

MORE: Learn more about top-performing fall 2020 grads

The half-hour recording took the place of the commencement ceremony that is typically held on campus but was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The video included images of graduates tossing their caps in their backyards and living rooms, along with other traditional elements: “Pomp and Circumstance,” guest speakers, the balloon drop and a flashback to the Class of 2020’s Sun Devil Welcome freshman rally in August 2016.

ASU is graduating 9,300 students this semester, including about 4,500 ASU Online graduates. 

Besides the YouTube video, ASU also is providing an augmented reality commencement experience. Through a smartphone app, members of the Sun Devil community can bring the ceremony into their own homes, watching as the ceremonial mace is placed in front of them and speeches are presented in their living room. The ASU commencement app was created by students in ASU's Meteor Studio in coordination with the XR at ASU initiative.

MORE: Learn more about the student-created AR app

The Thunderbird School of Global Management at ASU also featured a technology-enhanced ceremony. The online event took place within an immersive virtual reality rendering of Thunderbird’s new global headquarters, opening in August 2021. The commencement speaker appeared as a holographic projection within the virtual building, which mirrors the real headquarters under construction now at ASU’s Downtown Phoenix campus. That event can be viewed by anyone with access to a virtual reality headset or seen on YouTube. 

In addition to the virtual commencement, colleges and schools also hosted virtual convocations on Monday morning. Those smaller ceremonies featured a special moment for each graduate with their name, photo, degree and a comment from them about their future.

In addition, the fall 2020 graduates can attend the May 2021 or December 2021 in-person commencement ceremonies if they wish.

Larry Penley, chair of the Arizona Board of Regents, told the graduates that with a degree, they will be better citizens and earn higher wages.

“Yes, a college degree is valuable even now in the face of a recession and this economy,” he said. “This is a new economy driven by a demand for higher skills, more capability than we’ve seen in the past and more thinking skills.

“Your degree has prepared you for an economy based on those skills.”

Crow reminded the graduates of ASU’s charter and its commitment to inclusion and community responsibility.

“I’m hopeful as you move forward that you take these lessons you have learned in the middle of the pandemic and be introspective about yourself,” he said.

“And that you sit back and say, ‘How can I have even more impact than I thought? How can my life be greater?’”

He asked the graduates to write their own charters.

“I ask you, in this moment of deep complexity, what is your charter and how will you live toward that charter?”

Find links to all the ceremonies at

Top screenshot: ASU President Michael M. Crow speaks during the virtual commencement Monday. 

Mary Beth Faller

Reporter , ASU Now