Moments after Georgian Court University presented Marlene Lao-Collins with an honorary doctorate of public service, the executive director of Catholic Charities, Diocese of Trenton, challenged graduates at the May 20 commencement to follow in her footsteps.

Following the degree presentation at the Lakewood campus by Dr. Amuhelang Magaya, acting dean of the School of Education, Lao-Collins urged the graduates to seize the initiative and “make a difference too, wherever you go and whatever career path you take.

“Embrace Georgian Court’s core values of respect, integrity, justice, compassion and service and intentionally live them out,” she recommended. “Incorporating those values through our whole society – through economics, education, politics, health care, law, and everywhere – is key to protecting the dignity of all humans and ensuring that people will grow in community. It takes all of us to look out for one another.”

GCU’s president, Dr. Joseph R. Marbach, said “She serves others through her advocacy for so many social concerns – homelessness and affordable housing, poverty, hunger, trauma and domestic violence and childcare and welfare among others. She truly translates concern for social justice into action, which is at the heart of Georgian Court’s mission.”

Lao-Collins has headed the non-profit CCDOT since 2011. Prior to that, the Rutgers University graduate served the New Jersey Catholic Conference for 11 years as its director of social concerns. She is a co-founder and member of the Mercer County Hispanic Association and the Latina Women’s Council. In addition, she serves on the boards of Catholic Charities USA and Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital, Hamilton.

She shared with the diverse group of graduates how her “passion for advocacy was seeded” by her Puerto Rican parents, Abraham Lao and Margarita Lao de Ramos, when she was growing up in the ‘60s and ‘70s in Hoboken. Her father “refused to be marginalized by the fact that he was Puerto Rican.” This led him, she said, to create opportunities for the community there. Her father’s leadership inspired others to become involved. “Dad taught me to be proud of my roots ... and that perseverance, along with strategy, will eventually yield change.”

Added strength and inspiration came from the Franciscan religious community she grew up around, who “witnessed the Gospel every day ... They taught me that life is inherently social and how we relate to each other as a society impacts human dignity and our ability to grow in community,” she said. 

Lao-Collins described herself as “blessed to lead Catholic Charities, Diocese of Trenton, whose mission is to address those challenges through advocacy, service and community building.” 

Of her doctorate she noted, “… GCU’s social justice values align with my views, making this recognition even more special. All success in my life has been as a result of the village surrounding me: friends, mentors and family,” said Lao-Collins, whose sons Abraham and Eric were at her side at GCU.

She noted the contribution that her now late husband, Deacon Michael Collins, added to her accomplishments. Deacon Collins, who served the community of St. Joseph Parish, Trenton, passed away in 2019.

“He was my confidant, advisor, cheerleader and my strength,” she said. “I accepted the honorary doctorate in his memory as well.”