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A global citizen: Marina Catena, Director of the World Food Programme

The alumni network speaks with Marina Catena, a graduate of the United World College of the Adriatic in Duino, Italy, and Director of the World Food Programme in Paris.

“Go beyond your borders, learn from others, and work with others. That is what the IB taught me. If you want to change your life, you just need to study and learn.” – Marina Catena

As the director of the World Food Programme (WFP) for France and the Principality of Monaco, IB alumnus Marina Catena channels her passion for humanitarian causes: she works closely with European governments, corporations, foundations, and the media to raise funds and awareness.

Today, WFP is responding to an extraordinary level of humanitarian crises: Iraq, South Sudan, Syria, Central African Republic, and Ebola affected countries (Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone). WFP is the world’s largest humanitarian aid organization; in 2013, it fed 80 million people in 75 countries with a budget of $4.30 billion dollars. WFP is a voluntary funded organization, raising every euro they spend.

Marina Catena in uniform while serving with the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL)

Marina’s path to this prestigious organization came after years of international experience and from a desire to give back to those around her. Marina grew up in a small town in the Italian region of Abruzzo, but, at a young age, an opportunity arose that set her sights further afield.

Marina’s father was the first to hear about the United World College of the Adriatic, a school with a reputation that extends well beyond its locale and which has been part of the IB family since 1981. Her family pushed her to apply. Marina was accepted and she packed up to leave for Duino, the picturesque village on the Adriatic.

“You are the fruit of what you study and you are the fruit of the people you meet in your life.” – Marina Catena

Studying at the college, says Marina, changed her life. She recalls, “the marvelous experience of the college…together with your academic subjects you had two other subjects: social service and sports. Both forged my character and my way of being. I am a big sports person; I was able to windsurf, sail, and participate in gymnastics. It was great that the school measured you not only your academic attitude but also on your physical attitude.” The school’s challenging academic schedule kept her busy learning the IB way of working.

“I was the girl who loved studying,” she says, “my parents would have had to pick up my books and throw them out the window” in order to place an obstacle in her way, she says with a laugh. The faculty at the college provided her with additional inspiration: “One of my most memorable professors was Sarvesh Naidu. We studied Hemingway with him. The college is located on what was the front line of WWI. 9 million people died during that war and the United World College represents the hope of a future generation building a peaceful world.”

The most important lesson Marina took away from her time as an IB student wasn’t necessarily focused on academics. Rather, it was the school’s emphasis on service and community. At UWC, she developed a passion for social service that has continued to define her career and her life.

Her experience at the United World College of the Adriatic opened up many doors for her university career. Eventually, she had to make a decision: “After my experience at UWC, I wonder if I should go abroad or in Italy. I decided to study international relations at Libera Universita Internazionale di Studi Sociali (LUISS) in Rome, where I got a full scholarship.”

Marina Catena (left) with Carla Bruni-Sarkozy at Palais de l’Elysée for a special event for World AIDS Day

“While you may only be 15 and enjoying life, you also have to give back to people. And this is one of the incredible ways that the IB is structured.” – Marina Catena

When studying in Rome, a completely new opportunity rose: Marina became one of the first Italians to participate in the Erasmus Mundus program (1989), which enabled university students to travel and study throughout Europe.

After receiving a degree in international relations, Marina’s life played out like a film. She spent time working as a flight attendant for Air France, and recalls, “In Italy, at the time, to become a stewardess was like the most ambitious dream a girl could ever had.” Then, she became an intern at the European Commission in Brussels, Belgium.

“I was supposed to stay six months, but I stayed seven years – not as an intern though! I had a chance to work in the humanitarian department and it was the beginning of Europe looking beyond the Second World War to reach out and help other countries to overcome tragedy and difficulties. It was extremely motivating to be part of this moment.”

Marina Catena (left) during the Kosovo war with UN Secretary General Kofi Annan (center) and Dr. Bernard Kouchner (right)

She began working at the European Commission in 1992, during a period when the EU was becoming heavily involved in humanitarian issues. She wanted to be part of that and launched herself into advocacy and humanitarian aid, campaigning in favor of de-mining, and on behalf of refugees and children in conflicts worldwide.

“When I was 25, I had the chance to meet Bernard Kouchner,” says Marina. “He is the creator of Doctors Without Borders and the one in Europe who invented humanitarian aid and the idea of going beyond one’s borders to help people. I met him when he was in the European Parliament and then worked with him in Brussels. I had the chance to work with my two mentors, Dr. Bernard Kouchner and European Commissioner Emma Bonino, both charismatic leaders who taught me how to change the world – I was very lucky.”

“After ERASMUS, I really fell in love with Europe. The program started that year, it was like an IB abroad and the preparation I had from the IB was great.” – Marina Catena

After several years working at the European Commission, she moved to the UN and embarked on the first of many trips to areas in conflict. She has spent time in Kosovo, Iraq and in Lebanon. In Kosovo, she worked as an adviser to Kouchner, then Special Adviser to the UN Secretary-General. In Iraq, she worked on projects to benefit women and children, as well as on conservation programs for cultural heritage.

In 2005, she became a lieutenant in the Italian Army (she continues to serve as a member of the Italian reserve corps to this day) and two years later found herself in Lebanon as advisor to the chief commander of UNIFIL. She pushed for the creation of the first all-female soldier unit and the experience led to a book, A woman soldier: diary of an Italian lieutenant in Lebanon.

Marina has advice for someone interested in becoming a humanitarian aid worker: “You must have a good head and you have to like human beings. If you have this affection for people then it comes naturally. It’s not a job, it’s a mission.”

Learn more about Marina Catena and her work at

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