Until recently, everything in Dr. Marielena DeSanctis’s life was followed according to plan. It wasn’t until she became CCD’s new president and moved to a state she had never been to before this fact changed. Regardless of this unexpected transformation, she arrived in Denver with a mindset ready to rise to her newest challenge.
Original Story: Spring 2021, Volume 2, Issue 1 of Talon, CCD’s Student Publication
Words: Jenna Duke Photography: Chayce Lanphear, Gretchen Occhionero
In our new world of virtual meetings, the bits of background peeking out behind each person can tell us a lot. Aside from providing a respite of distraction during long meetings, it leaves us wondering and searching for clues about people we would usually interact with in a more formal setting. We get a peek into who they are: the person behind the screen.
When CCD’s new President Dr. Marielena DeSanctis logged on to Webex for our interview, I noticed her background right away. She sat perfectly placed framed by a doorway between two pictures hung on a light blue wall that contrasted nicely with her red lipstick. The background struck me as planned, organized, and engineer-like.
It’s not out of character for Marie to be so organized. Thinking like an engineer is part of her forte. “As you can imagine someone with a mechanical engineering degree, I tend to be a major planner,” She admitted. This mindset reveals a background in pragmatism that has catapulted Marie towards a career in educational leadership dedicated to transformation and improvement.
For example, when the young Marie DeSanctis confessed her dream of becoming a professional ballet dancer, her parents asked if she had lost her mind. “My parents weren’t shy,” she explained, while laughing. She made the pragmatic decision to set aside her love for dance and later discovered a different passion: transforming peoples’ lives through education.
Her mom was a middle school teacher that had fled Cuba in 1961 at the age of 16 with nothing but the clothes on her back. She had always emphasized the importance of education. Marie recalled her mom’s mantra, “People can take everything away from you, but they can never take your education. What you’ve learned is yours.”
“People can take everything away from you, but they can never take your education. What you’ve learned is yours.”
She quickly made history by being the first female engineer at the manufacturing company she was hired at (not to mention the first Hispanic female engineer). It wasn’t long before she realized this wasn’t an easy role. Like most females and minorities in the workplace, she had to prove herself to the men around her that thought she didn’t belong in the industry. After six years of hard work, she was presented with an unexpectedly welcome offer: to teach calculus and physics at her son’s private school.
The offer reignited her passion for transforming lives through education. Marie performed an admirable balancing act working as an engineer, getting a teaching certificate and a master’s degree in math education all while raising two young children.
Due to her engineer and educator training, Marie’s ability to spot patterns that most people overlook enabled her to see flaws in America’s educational institution that needed to be addressed. Before leaving her corporate engineering position, she told her colleagues “I really want to revolutionize, I want to completely change education.” This pursuit for change is what lead her to getting her PhD in educational leadership.
One flaw she noticed was the textbook-based method of learning. She believes there is an “art and science” to developing the craft of teaching. While Principal at Fort Lauderdale High School, Marie and her team took 50 students in 11th grade and created interdisciplinary teaching units. Instead of the students jumping from class to class, teachers in different areas of expertise came to the students to teach lessons that merged different subjects together. This implemented a more engaged, “free-flowing” environment for both teachers and students.
While she explained this to me with much fervor, I began to see where her hard work comes from. Her passion goes beyond pure methodical thinking, she deeply cares about the work she does. Perhaps it’s because she sees her younger self sitting in her mom’s classroom all those years ago.
She embraces students coming from a multitude of backgrounds and sees them through an individualized lens. She wants to shatter the “I’m not good enough” fear for anyone considering coming on campus. There should not be a wall to be climbed in order to feel good enough.
I asked her what advice she would give to these students. She smiled, seemingly pleased to be asked this, then responded in a frank manner, “Oh that’s an easy question, always work harder than everybody around you … believe it or not that’s an incredibly rare quality in people.” This answer encapsulates her own work ethic. She possesses a sense of urgency around the work that needs to be done and pushes those around her to strive to their own personal heights as well.
As president, she will continue to work hard because she knows there are always lives to be benefitted. When asked about her vision for CCD, she thought for a moment then said, “A vision for CCD is not just the president’s vision, it’s the community’s vision.” She hopes to honor the great work that has been done throughout the years while working together to move the organization forward.
After dwelling on what comes to mind first when hearing the word ‘leader’, she decided, “‘How is that person serving others?’ As president, I can’t really do a whole lot. It takes everybody at CCD to actually move the organization forward. How is the leader helping people learn more, do more, be better personally and professionally?” She stressed the value of taking care of oneself first in order to best serve others long term; a concept she remedies by regularly exercising, cooking, or reading nonfiction and mystery novels.
It’s difficult to imagine that the experiences and diverse knowledge that Marie accumulated throughout the years have not played a critical role in building the current foundation upon which she stands. Her own personal mantra, “The universe evolves as it should,” represents the circumstances of her background forming who she is now in the foreground of her life—a methodical, hardworking, leader in higher education eager to let everyone know what her parents repeatedly told to her; that education is the road to opportunity.