“All of our dreams can come true if we have the courage to pursue them.”
Few on UNCG’s campus embody Walt Disney’s famous quote more than Spanish instructor and alumna Nodia Mena ’14 MA.
Since she was young, Mena’s life has been marked by a relentless pursuit of her dreams, no matter the obstacles. Mena, who has born in Trujillo, Honduras, belongs to the Garifuna ethnic group – mixed-race descendants of West Africans, Carib Indians and Arawak Indians who settled on the north coast of Honduras in the late 18th century.
Garifunas have their own language and culture, yet little representation and recognition in Honduras. As a child, Mena was acutely aware of the limitations that she and other Garifunas faced.
“It’s very difficult for Garifunas to integrate with Hondurans,” she said. “When I went through high school, I experienced an identity crisis. I wasn’t learning anything about my history and culture.”
For Mena, the adversity didn’t break her – instead, it inspired her to excel. She graduated from high school and moved to the United States at the age of 19 to pursue a better life. But it wasn’t an easy road.
Mena spent the next 15 years in the Bronx as a single mother aspiring to not only provide for her family, but also follow her dreams. Her first job was as a caregiver for the elderly, making just $4.50 an hour. Her first home? A one-bedroom apartment that she shared with 10 other family members.
After many years of struggling financially and emotionally, Mena got the break she needed – she landed a job at Time Warner Cable’s call center. While she didn’t have the necessary experience for the position, the company was impressed by her drive and decided to give her a chance. After receiving promotion after promotion, Mena returned to school – while still working full time – to pursue a bachelor’s degree in psychology at Mercy College in New York.
Soon after she graduated in 2005, Mena decided she needed a change.
“I wanted to see my kids reaching for their goals too,” she said. “I realized the environment we were in wasn’t the best for my kids. I visited a friend in Greensboro and I really liked the area – I knew it was the right place for my family.”
After working at Citigroup in Greensboro for seven years, Mena was itching to get back in a classroom. She had a passion for literature and an interest in teaching Spanish, so she started exploring master’s programs. Following numerous conversations with Dr. Ignacio Lopez, Director of Graduate Studies in the Department of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures, Mena decided to pursue a Master of Arts in romance languages and literatures with a concentration in Spanish.
After decades of struggling with her identity, Mena finally felt at home at UNCG.
“Everyone in the program embraced who I am,” she said. “That has been very humbling.”
Not only did the program provide the support she needed, but it also shaped her teaching style. Mena notes that Dr. Carmen T. Sotomayor, Dr. Claudia Cabello Hutt and Dr. Mariche García Bayonas have been especially influential.
Mena graduated in December of 2014 and began teaching in January of 2015.
“I love the challenge,” she said. “I strive to present the material in a way that makes a difference in how my students view the Spanish language. I have to be creative.”
Looking back, Mena can see the silver lining in every moment of adversity.
“It’s very emotional now to look back and think about how far I’ve come,” she said. “I have so much to be grateful for. Every humble beginning was a learning experience.”
Story by Alyssa Bedrosian, University Relations
Photography by Martin W. Kane, University Relations