Inspired by mentors, grad from Venezuela pursues leadership in higher ed

4 – minute read

Marena Sanoja makes her accomplishments all sound so easy:


  • Leaving her family behind in her native Venezuela at age 12 for better opportunities in the United States.
  • Teaching herself English from books, movies and conversations with others while living with relatives in Cape Coral.
  • Graduating high school with a 5.42 GPA and salutatorian honors.
  • Excelling at Florida Gulf Coast University, where she earned her sociology degree this spring.


It’s only when Sanoja reflects on her journey that the difficulty of it all floods forward in her mind.


“Yeah. It was very hard,” said Sanoja, her voice slowing and softening as she thinks back to the toughest memory – leaving home. “Coming here without my mom, switching from being a kid to being a teenager, those years are already hard as it is. It was really hard.”

A year after Sanoja left Venezuela, her mother joined her in Southwest Florida. They eventually moved into their home in Fort Myers when Sanoja was in eighth grade.


Education means a lot to her. She began teaching herself English by reading the “Divergent” book series, which was familiar after seeing the original film. Television subtitles and conversations with others in school helped further. By the start of ninth grade, Sanoja had a fleet of questions for her high school guidance counselor.


“It was the first thing I did,” she said. “I was like, ‘How do I get scholarships? How do I get a 4.0 GPA?’ I just knew I wanted a good education, and my parents weren’t going to be able to afford it.”

FGCU graduate Marena Sanoja
At FGCU, Marena Sanoja has worked in multiple areas supporting students, including orientation, academic advising, service-learning and civic engagement.

In keeping with her drive to succeed, Sanoja is leaving herself little post-graduation downtime. After working at FGCU over the summer, she starts her higher education administration master’s program in fall at Pennsylvania State University.


Raised in a college-educated family, Sanoja took advanced-placement classes and was in the National Honor Society and JROTC at South Fort Myers High School. She also took dual-enrollment classes at Florida SouthWestern State College and FGCU. It was all with the idea of helping her family, including a younger sister she still hopes to bring to the United States.


Her education experience inspired her to mentor others like her middle school, high school and college counselors mentored her.

FGCU grad Marena Sonoja
Spring graduate Marena Sonoja will pursue a master’s degree at Pennsylvania State University.

“When I came here, I was trying so hard to fit in,” Sanoja said. “They were the people to guide me and really help me and really take me in. I know the impact that those people make. I want to do that for other people, especially students like me. I want to be that person for them.”


At FGCU, Sanoja has worked in multiple areas supporting students, including orientation, academic advising, service-learning and civic engagement. She also worked full time as a server at an off-campus restaurant for most of college.


Amber Whitaker, coordinator of Eagle View Orientation, heard such great things about Sanoja from another department that she sought her out for an undergraduate internship. She subsequently brought Sanoja back as a paid staffer this summer.


“She’s just incredible,” said Whitaker, praising Sanoja’s ability to face obstacles openly and honestly and grow from them – often with the same kind of help she passes on to others. “She takes the time to really sit down with people and, without making something about her, relay how they can problem solve through the different experiences she’s had. She finds this good balance of, ‘Things are really hard. They’re really challenging. But how are we going to get through it?’”


For her graduate assistantship at Penn State, Sanoja will be an advisor supporting the Council of Commonwealth Student Governments, which represents over 25,000 students across the university’s 19 Commonwealth campuses around the state.


“I am so nervous,” Sanoja said. “But I’m also excited for the challenge. I know that it’s going to come with a lot of growth, stepping out of my comfort zone. It’s going to be good.”

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