Career counselor shares life experience with student and alumni advisees

By Rebecca Maxon

A woman dressed in business attire stands outside for a portrait.

Irma Parra. (Photo: Brian Lewis)

November 1, 2021 — “Be passionate and don’t give up. Be ambitious about your dreams and goals and keep moving forward. Always.”

These are not just words that Career Development Specialist Irma Parra-Marrero — a three-time FDU alumna — offers to the students and alumni she counsels at the Florham Campus. They’re the words by which she has lived her life.

Parra-Marrero’s drive has taken her a long way since she arrived in the United States from Cuba 17 years ago, when she knew only one person in the New York metro area. Life hadn’t been good to her: she lost her mother when she was just 9 years old and her husband when their daughter was only 6.

“The main reason I came here was to provide a better future for my daughter, Anyrma Oliva-Parra. As a single mother, I knew I had to do something,” says Parra-Marrero, AA’09, BA’13, MAS’14 (Metro). “But it was also for me. I’ve always had this drive to seek better opportunities for myself as well.”

For 10 years, she worked full-time at St. Clare’s Foundation, the fundraising arm of St. Clare’s Health, in Denville, N.J., while pursuing her education at FDU’s Metropolitan Campus.

Attending the Puerta al Futuro® program, just three years after coming to the states, allowed her to perfect her English skills. “By the time I graduated with my associate degree in 2009, I knew I had to continue.”

Next, she pursued a Bachelor of Arts in Individualized Studies with concentrations in both business and communication, graduating in 2013. She then immediately completed a Master of Administrative Science degree in 2014 with a specialization in managing nonprofit organizations like St. Clare’s. She says, “That was very helpful for me and my career.”

Meanwhile, her daughter proceeded up the educational ladder as well, through high school and community college and then to a bachelor’s degree. “She’s a very successful young lady. She manages U.S. education for one of the branches of L’Oréal, a cosmetics company. It is truly the American Dream.”

Several years after finishing her degrees, Parra-Marrero found her way back to FDU. “When I saw the opportunity open in career development, I knew I could make a difference in young people’s lives,” she says. “I wanted to reconnect with my school, so I applied.”

Parra-Marrero loves her job, but not just because she loved her time learning at FDU. “What I do is give advice to students and alumni on career-related topics like résumé writing, interview skills and career strategies. I also communicate with them regularly about opportunities and events, like when there are good internships or positions open or even volunteer opportunities.”

She works closely with faculty, staff and employers to facilitate opportunities for students, as well as to organize career-development workshops and events so students can learn “more about the services that are here for them.”

During her time at FDU, Parra-Marrero took advantage of some of the same extracurricular opportunities she now promotes.

“I always try to encourage students and motivate them to take advantage of the variety of offerings, to learn as much as they can.”

As one part of her master’s degree she completed a specialization in diplomacy and international relations. “FDU has a good collaboration with the United Nations, including ambassador’s conferences, which I participated in. I even represented Cuba, carrying my flag at an event at the U.N.”

She connects with her advisees on a personal level and sometimes it can make all the difference.

“They find it inspiring when I share my story with them,” Parra-Marrero says. “When students are lost and have many worries, I am able to direct that energy in the right direction. When they look back, I want them to say, ‘Yes, I’m glad I went to career development because my counselor guided me to where I am today.”

She adds, “To know that I am part of that journey is priceless to me.”

In her 17 years in America, Parra-Marrero has been connected to FDU, first as a student, now as a staff member, for 15 years. “I love the school. It made a huge difference in my life and in my family’s life,” she says.

In September, Parra-Marrero and her daughter brought their journey full circle when they hosted an event called “Changing the Odds: A Mother-Daughter Journey to Achieve the American Dream” on campus as part of Hispanic Heritage Month.

Sponsored by career development, the discussion followed the two women through their journey of resilience, optimism, hope and success.

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