It’s not given, it’s earned.”
It’s a motto that’s fired the furnace of Lizetthe Moreno’s goal-driven dreams since childhood, and she’s about to realize a big one. A former SkillsUSA national officer, the 21-year-old Houston native now stands ready to become an officer in the United States Marines, a testament to a life already characterized by gold-standard success. Moreno’s motto wasn’t born of success, however; it was forged in the mettle-building struggles of her father Israel’s childhood in Colombia.
“My dad’s family lived in a very poor village,” Moreno explains, “and every day, he and his siblings would be tasked with going out and finding food for the dinner table. So my dad would go and become best friends with the butcher, and that would lead to him having more meat to bring back. My parents fought so hard for everything, and they never let me forget that nothing is going to be handed to you. It’s helped me through difficult times.”
Israel Moreno and his wife, Ana Patricia, eventually came to the United States for the same simple reason that brings so many: “Better opportunities,” Moreno says, adding, “Funny enough, they became citizens in the same building I’d end up graduating high school from.”
Those better opportunities led to a childhood in which Moreno claims she and her younger brother Jonathan wanted for nothing. Well … almost. “When I was in sixth grade, all my friends had allowances,” she laughingly recalls, “and I was like, ‘Mom and Dad can I have an allowance?’ And they were like, ‘Absolutely not! You just do the work and life will reward you on its own.’ So that was the mentality in my house.”
Forging Her Path
As a freshman at Porter (Texas) High School in 2014, Moreno’s interest in sports and fitness — combined with a growing desire to serve — attracted her to the school’s criminal justice program led by SkillsUSA advisor Matthew Busby. A former Marine and attorney, Busby — along with fellow advisor and criminal justice instructor Ruben Anthony Najera — recognized Moreno’s leadership potential immediately, and the duo invited her to not only join SkillsUSA but run for district office.
“I went to the district competition not knowing anything about SkillsUSA,” Moreno says, “but I loved it. Meeting all the people, seeing every student’s area of study come to life. I guess you could say I drank the Kool-Aid and fell in love with SkillsUSA and everything it did.”
As a sophomore, Moreno became a district officer while helping her team earn a gold medal in the Outstanding Chapter competition. Later that year, she was elected to state office. While the achievements were exciting, Moreno quickly realized that SkillsUSA wasn’t just strengthening her resume; it was shaping her future. “Neither of my parents went to college,” she says, “so it was really SkillsUSA and my advisor that gave me that direction. ‘Oh, you should take the SAT, these are all the different jobs or fields you can get into,’ etc. SkillsUSA opened my eyes to how the American education system really worked and the different options students have.”
One new option presented itself during Moreno’s junior year while she was competing in a criminal justice competition at her school. As part of a tiebreaker component, each team had to select one of its members to compete in a Marine Corps Combat Fitness Test. If the competition ended in a draw, the team with the top performer in the test would be declared the winner. Moreno’s team just needed to select its champion. “Mr. Busby was like, ‘Lizetthe, you’re going to do it,’’ Moreno remembers, “and I loooovvved it. I just enjoyed the tenacity, the grit, being surrounded by all these super incredible motivators.” The test was administered by a visiting Marine Corps recruiter, Staff Sergeant Dylan Case. When Moreno won, Case told her to “talk to me about the Marines in a year.”
While a spark had been ignited, Moreno’s main focus was earning a spot on SkillsUSA’s 2017-18 national officer team. It wasn’t a desire for more personal gain that drove her to run, but it was definitely something personal. “I wanted to see more representation in SkillsUSA,” she says, “more females of color, more individuals who not only wanted to smile and wave but also advocate and say, ‘Maybe SkillsUSA should do this or do that.’”
As SkillsUSA’s high school president, Moreno did a lot more than “smile and wave.” She visited SkillsUSA Puerto Rico in 2018 after the territory had been ravaged by hurricanes, part of an effort by SkillsUSA to offer in-person support and encouragement to the association during a challenging time. During the visit, Moreno realized she was receiving as much encouragement as she was giving, a revelation that shaped her views on servant leadership. “Getting to talk to the members about the adversity they faced, yet seeing their resiliency, positive attitude and drive to move forward … it just made me so honored to serve them as an officer.”
The trip was one of many highlights during Moreno’s tenure, including the opportunity to advocate for SkillsUSA to then U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. “Just being able to advocate to someone at such a high level, to really push for that opportunity for other immigrants or daughters of immigrants like me, that was huge.”
During SkillsUSA’s Washington Leadership Training Institute (WLTI), Moreno and her fellow national officers shared another huge experience at Arlington Cemetery’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. There, Moreno watched as two of her teammates laid a wreath on the tomb during a somber-yet-inspiring ceremony. The spark was glowing brighter. “At that moment, I was pondering the military just a little bit,” she says, “but to see how grounded SkillsUSA was in patriotism … it was just really cool to have a role in something so beautiful and amazing.”
It was déjà vu all over again back in Texas later that year, as Moreno found herself chosen to compete in yet another combat fitness test for her criminal justice team. Once again, Staff Sergeant Case administered the test. Once again, Moreno won. This time, Case didn’t ask Moreno to “come back in a year.” He convinced the graduating senior to apply for a Naval Reserves Officers’ Training Corps (NROTC) scholarship as soon as possible, one that could lead to her becoming an officer in either the Navy or Marines. Moreno chose the latter, and the spark was now officially a fire.
Dual Life, One Goal
Moreno earned the NROTC scholarship and committed to Catholic University in Washington, D.C., where she’s now a senior majoring in Spanish for International Service and minoring in Latin American Studies. “So that’s like my academic normal college student side,” she explains, “and then in the mornings, evenings and on weekends, I travel down to my unit at George Washington University [also in Washington, D.C.], and there we have a lot of training. They’ll also take us down to the Marine Corps base in Quantico, so we have this dual life.”
That dual life wasn’t always smooth sailing for Moreno, who, early on, doubted whether she had what it took to become a Marine. She thought about dropping out, but that’s when her father’s motto returned, and Moreno decided to keep earning the future she’d chosen. That decision proved prophetic when, as a junior, Moreno earned a Scholastic Leadership Scholarship from the National Defense Industrial Association, the first Catholic University student to receive the award. The honor was further confirmation of what Moreno’s family, advisors and supporters already knew: She has what it takes. She always did.
“I just graduated from officer candidate school this past summer,” Moreno says, “and I am expected to commission in May of 2022 as a second lieutenant in the United States Marine Corps.”
How do her parents feel about their daughter’s pending military career? “They drove all the way from Texas to see me graduate [from officer candidate school]. Just getting that hug from my mom and dad on graduation day was one of the most beautiful, surreal feelings ever. Because of their sacrifice and struggles to have a life in America, I was given everything that I was given. I didn’t have to be best friends with the butcher to get meat like my dad did. My parents gave me everything because this country gave us everything. I felt called to serve and protect that.”
As Moreno prepares for basic training, she is struck by the role SkillsUSA played in preparing her for this moment. “In SkillsUSA, I would literally study the Leadership Handbook for hours. On our red blazers, you take a ruler and measure out where the pins go, make sure it’s perfect. When you step up to talk, you know how to introduce yourself, the posture, the professional cues. It was so interesting to see the parallels with life as a midshipman. It gave me more confidence when speaking to high-ranking officers or gunnery sergeants who were like two feet taller than me.”
Moreno “doesn’t know what the future holds,” but she’s allowed herself a few brief glimpses of a post-military career, with “FBI agent” or “lawyer” high on the list. “Right now, though,” she emphasizes, “I’m just so excited to have the privilege to lead Marines.”
She pauses, reflecting on the challenges she’s overcome and those yet to come. “I can’t say that it’s been easy up to this point,” she says, “and it’s definitely not going to get easier.” Maybe not. But whatever successes Moreno has yet to achieve, you can bet they’ll be earned.