2020 First Generation MBAs: Marleny De León, Vanderbilt University (Owen)

Marleny De León

Vanderbilt University, Owen Graduate School of Management  (and Peabody College of Education and Human Development)

Class: 2022

Hometown: Tucson, AZ

Fun Fact About Yourself: Through a Stanford field research grant to Guatemala, I interviewed numerous groups. They included:

Plant Medicine Practitioners — including the only medical doctor in the country utilizing ibogaine

Medical Patients — some of whom were seeking spiritual enlightenment through plants such as ayahuasca, while others looking for relief from their addictions

Mayan Ajq’ijs — Also known as shamans or spiritual guides.

Given that Guatemala is undergoing a continuation of its long war and terror in the form of severe drug, alcohol, and violence addiction and its attendant crime rates, I sought to understand whether the nation could recover with the assistance of these often forgotten or suppressed ancestral healing modalities.

Undergraduate School and Major: Northern Arizona University, Humanities

Most Recent Employer and Job Title: The U.S.-Italy Fulbright Commission, Student Researcher.

Prior to my Fulbright and my M.A. at Stanford, I worked for ADP as an International Payroll Consultant.

What did your parents do for a living? A single parent, my mother worked as a domestic worker to support my family. My father was a truck driver in Guatemala.

What was the highest level of education achieved by your mother and your father? My mother’s formal education consists of two weeks of first grade during the Guatemalan Civil War. My father finished second grade.

Which family member or mentor is your biggest inspiration or role model? Why? Indisputably, my mother — survivor of war and genocide and victim of severe domestic violence — is the one who has always inspired me to appreciate every opportunity bestowed upon me by never hesitating to continue the cycle of giving back with an open heart.

My mother was forced to drop out of first grade to help raise 17 siblings. Even with her dutiful care, nine of her siblings died before adulthood. After becoming a mother, she lost two daughters before their third birthday. She gave birth to me, her 11th and last pregnancy, near the apex of the Guatemalan Civil War, in the dead center of the conflict. Seven months later, she fled Guatemala and almost drowned in the Rio Grande en route to Miami where she was a domestic worker for three years before returning for us.

My sister, who in the absence of our mother became my full-time caregiver when she was only ten years old, is also my heroine. Through their devoted selves and unconditional love, my mother and sister ignite my passion to continue empowering the forgotten, broken-down but never broken, underdog.

What was the moment that led you to decide to pursue higher education? Growing up in Los Angeles and Tucson, lost in the confusing nexus of disparate cultures, I discovered a natural proclivity for school and learning. By eight years old, I had developed self-discipline, often solely caring for younger family members as the adults worked. I became the interpreter for my extended immigrant family once I mastered English, and later plunged into a self-study of Romance languages given the paucity of these offerings at my public schools. I have always loved languages. And yet, although none of my eight siblings went beyond tenth grade, my mother refused to allow me to attend college. In her myopia, a woman’s success meant immediate earnings through menial work, not investing in education. She attempted to mold me into a meticulous domestic worker and procured many jobs for me, somehow starting when I was 13 cleaning the University of Arizona’s stadium during graveyard shifts.

When I informed my mother of my plans to attend college, she became so incensed that she railed at me for what she considered irresponsible behavior. Lost in truculence as I refused to continue cleaning houses, my mother proceeded to rip up the library book I had been reading and, as I reached to protect my face, she sliced the side of my hand with the butter knife she was holding. It took years of processing through my mother’s own personal pain and scars to better understand her past behavior, yet this was certainly a defining memory that especially solidified my determination for higher education.

Although she does not always understand my future plans, my mother has become my number one fan and supporter in all my personal and professional endeavors.

What was your biggest worry before going for your undergraduate degree? Once I graduated from high school, I moved to Flagstaff, AZ and delved into my studies at NAU. Sadly however, shortly after my savings were depleted and my hopes of receiving federal or scholarship aid were dashed due to my undocumented status at the time. I was consequently forced to take a “gap year” that kept extending, and although I often worried about not being able to return to school or not being able to pay for tuition, my dream of a higher education was not abated.

I spent the next few years acquiring professional experience while saving for my studies and helping my ailing mother raise the Guatemalan refugee children she occasionally fostered and my two nephews who were five and seven when their parents were deported in 2011. I had always wanted to study out of state, but with my brother’s dislocation from our family, I knew I could not leave my home in the Sonoran Desert. I worried I would not be able to fulfill my dreams and also be there for my nephews to give them a semblance of a normal family life.

What was the most challenging part of getting your undergraduate degree? I eventually resumed my studies at my local community college yet maintaining a distinguished G.P.A. was arduous given I had to finance my education, often working two jobs simultaneously. Nonetheless, having an eye for my scholastic future, I secured meaningful employment where I received a unique foundation to learn, research, and teach the nuances of Spanish and its varied cultures, while also gaining corporate managerial experience.

Besides the financial hardships, the most challenging part of obtaining my undergraduate degree was overcoming the stigma of obtaining it through community college and online learning. This path required a tremendous level of independence and foresight, yet it also offered fantastic opportunities to truly delve into my academic and professional curiosities, while creating mentorships of substance which were later pivotal in my success with my first round of graduate school applications.

Realizing the salience of socializing with members of linguistically oppressed minorities, in college I was drawn to American Sign Language and Deaf Culture where I was introduced to an entirely new way of seeing and relating to the world. After years of study and appreciation for the Deaf Community, I learned to leverage my non-verbal communication skills and found in sign language an effective way to interact with the various indigenous communities in Arizona and Latin America with whom I have worked and visited.

By fully taking ownership and direction of what my community college and online learning experience had the potential to be, I trained myself to look for answers and lessons that went beyond a grade or pedigree that a diploma could offer.

What didn’t your family understand about the higher education experience that you wish they would understand better? The truth is my mother had no clue what the names Stanford or Vanderbilt represented. As far as universities went, my mother knew about the University of Arizona because she previously held a custodial job there, and she admitted hearing the name Harvard at some point mentioned on the news. Everything about higher education has been a complete new discovery for my family. In fact, it is still difficult for some of my siblings to fully understand why I am now pursuing an MBA, rather than working a regular 9-5 job and earning a paycheck to help my mother in her modest retirement.

What I ultimately wish my family would better understand is that while I followed what sometimes seemed an unconventional, meandering career path, it was our family’s sacrifices and back-breaking labor, our ancestors’ tears and blood, that galvanized me to keep aiming for that elusive educational accessibility — that which once seemed like an impossibility to reach.

What led you to pursue an MBA degree? Once I became a U.S. citizen in 2015, I had acquired years of distinctive professional experience in the telephone-captioning industry, and worked with the indigenous of Arizona, Guatemala, and Mexico, I dedicated myself to exploring graduate school and future career options. My painstaking research resulted in nine superlative offers for admission to premiere M.A. and PhD programs in Latin American Studies or Spanish and Portuguese. In the end, I selected Stanford’s offer for a one-year M.A. in Latin American Studies as it allowed me to investigate if academia was my proper path, given I had never had a traditional academic experience.

Despite professors advising me to pursue a PhD in Anthropology, Political Science, or Spanish, I decided that pursuing an MBA/MPP in Quantitative Methods in Education Policy, and an eventual career investing in the educational experience of Latin American migrants and other displaced peoples, will be the summation of my experiences, passions, and strengths.

How did you choose your MBA program? Being a proud tropical-desert person, weather and location were high on my list of considerations when deciding where to apply for my MBA! Another priority was the collaborative nature of the program. While I can enjoy being a competitive individual and teammate, I want my MBA experience to be defined by the level of relationships I build as I apply new tangible insights and knowledge to my portfolio.

Additionally, after years of having to navigate my path solely on my own, I was ready to receive the personalized care that I need to confidently claim my spot at “the table.” As an underrepresented minority who has never had a typical education background, choosing an MBA program that fosters my professional development meant choosing a school that values my unique experiences and creates a sense of shared supportive community fueled by accessible professors — the perfect, rigorous mix at Owen.

Vanderbilt has thus become my ideal academic home, especially as it offers the fascinating dual MPP degree option where I can develop my quantitative and analytical skills even further and learn to be a leader in education policy. Based on years of ethnographic research among the Indigenous of Guatemala and Mexico, and the Deaf and migrant communities in the U.S. and Italy, I have considered and envisioned new means of addressing the historical educational inequity that I know the faculty at Owen and Peabody will help me unlock holistically.

What was your biggest worry before starting your MBA? One of the skills I wish to enhance during my MBA is my ability to make better informed decisions through the proper and efficient analysis of data. While I want to improve my overall quantitative reasoning skills, I worried about lagging behind in the program if it became too quantitatively demanding.

I have addressed this concern over the last two years with the help of individualized business courses, textbooks, and podcasts, as well as talks with peers, mentors, and advisors. At Vanderbilt I am finding success as I continue to be challenged to approach entrepreneurial, political, and social dichotomies through enriching discussions and informed analysis. This experience is giving me the crucial advantages needed to effectively influence, leverage, and help rebalance the historical inequalities facing the U. S. and Latin America’s marginalized.

How were you able to finance your MBA as a first-generation student? I was named a Forté Fellow with a full merit scholarship at Owen. I have also diligently applied to scholarships and have thus far been awarded grants from ALPFA (Ernst & Young), the Hispanic Scholarship Fund, the LAGRANT Foundation, and Prospanica.

At Peabody, I was awarded the Dean’s Scholarship and the George Award to cover the MPP tuition.

Having avoided student debt up to this point, one of my goals is to help other students from underrepresented backgrounds achieve the same. Leveraging my own experience of navigating the cumbersome and challenging MBA application process, through my next project, R2A (Reach to Achieve) Consulting, I am looking forward to helping other students from underrepresented backgrounds attain their goals of admission to competitive business schools.

What advice would you have for other first-generation college students? Find your allies and be faithful to them — you never know when you might need a favor. You also often need these special individuals to guide you in your next step when you become unsure.

Having said that, it is of utmost importance to know yourself, because only you will know if you should even take a next step, or when that should be. It is good to seek advice at times, but it is best to first build discernment within.

Apply to separate rounds during the admissions cycle and if money is an issue, inquire whether you are eligible for application fee waivers. Also, once you have decided on your top schools, attend diversity and other admission events whenever possible.

If you have the time and motivation, put the extra effort to seek out external scholarships which you might be eligible for.

Make new allies. Do not be shy and send that potential connection a quick, yet thoughtful, message or email. You will send many messages that go unanswered, yet you will certainly also make some meaningful connections.

What do you plan to pursue after graduation? I plan to use the skills that I have learned to assist the underserved Deaf, Indigenous, and Latino communities through a variety of positions as reality dispenses. My immediate objective after graduation will be to pursue a career in educational consulting in the U.S. and Latin America.

On a more long-term focus, I aspire to head a non-profit organization or foundation to engage policymaking for social good through cross-collaboration of corporations and stakeholders previously absent from key discussions.



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