Passion for Learning Helps Student Overcome Addictions


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Tuesday, March 19, 2024
Meet Student Leader Marielena Aguirre

By Mira Radovich, Senior Contributing Writer


Artist. Painter. Writer. Advocate. Recovering addict. Business owner.

Those are just a few words that describe Marielena Aguirre. But if you asked her what defines her the most, she would answer with one word: student. 

“I took my first class with Rio Salado in 2019,” Aguirre said. “Thanks to online classes, it’s been easy to fit college into my life. I’m very passionate about school. I love to learn and I love to learn what I'm passionate about.”

Growing up in Wittman, Arizona, Aguirre’s aptitude for learning was identified early on.

“In elementary school, I was put into a program for gifted students,” Aguirre said. “It was a lot of pressure from that point on. When I started high school, I was a part of an international baccalaureate program, but my mental health really went downhill from there.”

Aguirre graduated from high school with a 1.9 GPA, and her life began spiraling out of control.

“I had gone from one substance to another, and I was drinking very heavily at the time,” Aguirre said. “I was making really bad choices. I lost my family. I really didn't have anybody.”

Against all odds, Aguirre found the will and strength to get sober without ever going to rehab.

“My parents could not afford it,” Aguirre said. “I knew that the chances that I would get out and relapse were very strong, and I would have wasted my parent's money.”

Today, Aguirre is six years sober from intravenous drugs, and two and half years sober from alcohol.

“In that time of me going through recovery, I learned how strong I am and how much I want to help people,” Aguirre said.  

That is why she chose to pursue associate degrees in addictions and substance use disorders and social work.

“I want to go into public policy reform and bring attention to the insane amount of alcohol advertisements there are and put a stop to it,” Aguirre said.

She thanks Rio Salado staff and advisors for helping guide her to that path.

“It wasn't until I spoke with academic advisors here that I really understood what social work was,” Aguirre said. “I also talked to faculty and learned about public policy reform, and now it's my dream.”

Ultimately, Aguirre hopes to transfer to Arizona State University to complete a bachelor’s degree in social work after she completes her Rio Salado degrees, and then work with nonprofit advocacy groups.

“I will always see myself as an advocate,” Aguirre said. “I have a small business that I run. I paint and draw and sell my paintings. Proceeds from the sales go toward nonprofit rehabilitation centers.”

“Nothing brings me more joy than someone looking at my artwork and liking it,” she said. “And then I tell them my story and they like it more. I think they go hand in hand – being an artist and being an advocate.”

For now, Aguirre is content pursuing her Rio programs on her own terms.

“I’m taking classes at my own pace, and as cliche as it sounds, I'm really enjoying the journey,” Aguirre said. “I love school. There are so many amazing opportunities. If I graduate this year, or next year, I know I'll get there eventually and I'll be just as proud.”

She will also appreciate how far she has come.

“Recovery is not the same for everybody,” Aguirre said. “Being in classes as a recovering addict, I’m learning how addiction works in the brain. It's helping me to help others, and learn about myself, how I got to where I was, and how I got to where I am now.”