SkillsUSA national high-school vice president Melissa Moreno, a senior at San Luis (Ariz.) High School, is hardly the stereotypical “social outcast” who’s the cliched target in the bullied-student scenarios we’re most familiar with.
On the contrary, she’s a vibrant extrovert, grounded in confidence and driven by a passion for leadership. And yet, Moreno claims to have been the victim of a cyberbullying campaign that dragged on for nearly two years, one that caused her pain, but — in part because of lessons learned through SkillsUSA — never caused her to question her character.
“I’ve lived in San Luis my whole life,” Moreno says. “I love my city, but it definitely comes with a lot of obstacles. It’s a city that is 99 percent Hispanic, and most parents in this town are immigrants who work in the fields as agricultural workers.”
Moreno’s grandparents fit that description. They came to San Luis while following a trail of seasonal produce jobs, but they ultimately decided to stay. Her parents eventually settled there, too, and her mom is now a teacher at Moreno’s school.
The family has worked hard to carve out an ever-evolving, ever-improving life for themselves, not just for their benefit, but for the benefit of the entire community. “I think one of the biggest obstacles that comes with our town is people not seeing our potential,” Moreno says.
“We have so many students who are strong enough, talented enough and skilled enough to really make it out there in the workforce.”
Moreno has clearly become one of those students, but her drive to get there was evident even before she joined SkillsUSA. “I was always that kid that wanted to be involved in school,” she says, “not just in school, but also every extracurricular activity available. That’s helped me gain a lot of opportunities throughout my educational journey.”
A shocking discovery
When Moreno was encouraged to join SkillsUSA as a freshman, she initially thought of the organization as just another one of those aforementioned “extracurricular” activities. After becoming introduced to SkillsUSA’s leadership track through the photography program she’d enrolled in, however, she soon realized that membership in this unique organization wasn’t something “extra”; it was something integral to every facet of her development as a student and leader moving forward.
“My first time in SkillsUSA was very shocking,” Moreno recalls. “As a confident freshman, I came in thinking, ‘Oh, I know I’m a leader. Oh, I’m super professional.’ But what I learned was that you can always grow more. You can always be doing more, being more, being better.”
Moreno credits advisor Nereida Lansman with helping her discover those paths to self-improvement. “She and I became very close,” Moreno says. “She provided me a lot of opportunities, including the chance to attend the SkillsUSA Arizona Fall Leadership Conference.”
The experience at the conference sparked an epiphany in Moreno. Here were tangible examples of leadership that made sense to her, ways she could harness her unbridled curiosity and ambition while focusing them on a controlled path toward success.
“It led me to change my mindset from being a fixed mindset to a growth mindset,” she says, the excitement of that discovery still evident in her voice. “There’s always room for improvement, and if you keep that growth mindset, that improvement will come as your journey comes as well.”
That first exposure to SkillsUSA leadership made Moreno want to jump in headfirst, which is exactly what she did. “The next year, I became our school’s first-ever state officer,” she proudly recalls. During her first term, Moreno delivered a keynote address on one of the elements of the SkillsUSA Framework that continues to resonate most strongly with her: integrity.
Ironically, that speech would lead to a decision by Moreno that would take the words she’d written and delivered and put them to the test in a dark and difficult real-world situation that would prove to be one of the most defining experiences in her life so far.
A fateful decision
Shortly after delivering her speech on integrity, Moreno claims to have learned that a student committed an infraction during the conference that, from Moreno’s point of view, violated the standards she now felt partially responsible for upholding as a new leader. After some soul-searching, Moreno decided to report the incident to her advisor, not to simply “tattle,” but to ensure that such an incident would not happen again.
The report was delivered, the matter was dealt with, and, at least at school, the situation seemed to have been resolved. Outside of school, however, a nearly two-year test of Moreno’s strength of character was just getting started.
“Some people found out that it had obviously been me [who reported the incident],” Moreno explains, “and things really became toxic for me after that with those people. I saw many posts written about me in group chats and on Facebook. They were being offensive toward my character and trying to smear my reputation with their friends. It even started to spread, where people were creating fake Instagram accounts for me and posting things about my character, saying I was a traitor, stuff like that. It was all a very overwhelming experience, because I felt like I had done the right thing.”
No pain, no gain
If the intent of the bullying was to damage Moreno’s reputation and inevitably break her spirit, it soon became apparent that the efforts were doomed to backfire.
“I had other great friends and family that supported me,” Moreno says, “and my state officer teams were supportive through all of it. But I think what kept me going through that unhealthy environment was my belief in our mission and my belief in SkillsUSA, because I truly believe that what we’re doing in our organization is so empowering.”
The efforts to shame Moreno for standing up for her values — and the values of the organization she’d grown to truly love — have only strengthened her resolve to continue holding the line when it comes to her belief system. Further, what she learned through her leadership lessons in SkillsUSA has only demonstrated how relevant and evergreen those lessons truly are outside of the classroom.
“The training I received as a state officer and as a member of SkillsUSA has made me more familiar with my qualities and abilities as a leader, that ability to have integrity and to lead with integrity,” she explains. “It’s all made me very strong in my beliefs, and I know [reporting the student] was the right decision to make.”
The calm after the storm
As the bullying faded away, it revealed a glowing resilience in Moreno, a resilience that shone most brightly at SkillsUSA’s 2019 National Leadership and Skills Conference (NLSC). There, Moreno was elected as a national officer by her peers, a peer group who believed in her.
“As soon as they called my name, I remember thinking everything I had gone through was worth it,” she remembers. “Moving on from all that was such an exciting moment.”
As Moreno nears graduation, she’s considering many options, but what seems to be inspiring her the most is becoming a business lawyer. Perhaps the draw comes from recent personal experience. “As a lawyer,” she explains, “it’s your responsibility to fight for what you believe in.”
As she looks toward the future, Moreno continues to take pride in her past. “I’m so thankful I had the opportunity to be a pioneer for our school [by becoming its first state officer],” she says, “because now we have so many other students here not only interested in running for SkillsUSA state office but also for other career and technical student organizations.”
One of those students is Miguel Nunez, another state officer from San Luis High School, who joined Moreno at the 2019 NLSC to become a national officer (Region 5 vice president) right alongside her.
“Seeing that success that we’ve had through career and technical education and SkillsUSA has encouraged many more students and many more kids in our community to not only want to be involved with SkillsUSA but to believe in themselves,” Moreno declares. “It shows them that even through all these obstacles that are faced in a border town and that we face as children of immigrants, we can still make it through.”
Reflecting back on her trials and successes, Moreno adds, “I’ve had a very interesting SkillsUSA journey, because it’s not one that’s been easy, and nothing’s been handed to me.” And her current views on leadership? “It’s not about being the loudest person in the room,” she reflects, “but being the biggest server you can possibly be and offering that service to a mission that you believe in.”
Moreno’s Tips for Victims of Cyberbullying
Cyberbullying is not just a buzz word; it’s a real epidemic that affects thousands of students every year. In fact, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, 20 percent of students between 12 and 18 experienced bullying in the 2016-17 school year, and 15 percent identified cyberbullying as the main method bullies used. Those same statistics claim that girls are three times more likely to be cyberbullied than boys.
Melissa Moreno has been on the receiving end of that bullying, but she came through stronger for the experience. That doesn’t mean it didn’t hurt though, and she has advice for anyone who might be experiencing this rising form of abuse.
“First off, it will get better,” Moreno assures. “Even if you don’t think it will right now. There are so many stories from other people that would show that’s true.”
According to Moreno, developing a strong sense of self-belief is crucial to getting through the ordeal. “As long as you know who you are and have an understanding that you deserve better than this, you will get better than this. If you know yourself, who could possibly get you to believe anything different?”
Moreno is quick to add, however, that no one should try to deal with the situation alone. “Support from your inner circle is very important,” she says.
If you’re currently being bullied, don’t give up. Tell an adult at home or at school. Use social reporting tools to flag the bullying. Capture the evidence. Don’t engage the culprits directly. If someone you know is being cyberbullied, support them. Call it out for the crime (and cowardice) it is. For more tips, visit: www.stopbullying.gov/resources/kids.