Maritza Martinez may have sprinted through her MBA, but for UCF’s community relations director, the road to a bachelor’s degree was more of a winding, long-distance run – one full of dead ends and tangents.
“If you don’t get from point A to B the way you envisioned, don’t give up.” That’s what Martinez tells anyone who doesn’t have the privilege of the traditional four-year college experience at arm’s length. Like all good advice, it comes from a place of experience.
Her own winding path – arguably a continuation of her mother’s journey – did not begin in Central Florida, rather in New York City. Martinez’s mother, Carmen, moved to The Big Apple from rural Dominican Republic in the 1960s. After a quarter century of hustle and bustle in the city that never sleeps, she was in search of a quieter lifestyle. As a newly-single, working mom, she wanted better opportunities for her three children, Maritza, Frank and Omar. So she moved the small family from Brooklyn to Osceola County in the early 1990s, and as Maritza grew into a young adult, she became the person her mother relied on to help out with the bills. After graduating from Osceola High School in 1991, Maritza aspired to attend the University of Central Florida. However, she ran into an obstacle that faces many working-class citizens who are both first-generation Americans and first-generation college students: cost.
“I remember with great accuracy how much money was set aside for me to go to college: zero dollars,” Martinez recalls in good humor.
With a cost-sensitive approach in mind, she chose Valencia Community College and, that fall, began taking college-level courses in portables behind Gateway High School, which was the college’s temporary location in Kissimmee (until the Osceola Campus opened in 1997). Martinez had trouble balancing family, work responsibilities and the urge to live the same robust social life as many of her peers. She would take semesters – sometimes years — off to find a balance. And it wasn’t until 1998, that she earned her A.A. degree from Valencia, opening the door for her initial dream of attending UCF.
“Valencia offered so much support; it made an impression on me,” Martinez says. “I adapted to life at UCF pretty well, but some classes were just really tough. I took statistics at UCF twice – and withdrew twice. I went back to take it at Valencia as a transient student, because I needed that environment.”
The culture of collaboration she found at Valencia would prove another lasting impression which has followed her throughout her career. “I remember having a lot of group assignments where you have three to five people, and you have to identify who has the best skills for a given task,” Martinez says. “It never fails: you find someone who needs a bit more managing to contribute to the group in the best way they can.”
Parlaying her knack for project management into a role as UCF’s community relations director, she has learned that success takes “a lot of listening” coupled with an understanding that we are all “works in progress.” Working to open new doors for herself and others, arguably, has been a life pursuit for Martinez, one that began well before walking up the portables’ access ramps at Valencia Community College.
“When you think about the level of poverty my parents came from in the ‘60s –living in the countryside of a Third World country, in a house with dirt floors — they had very little education,” says Martinez. “Fast forward to today: I get to represent one of the largest public education institutions in America. I feel very privileged to help provide a valuable thing to the community: an education… I always say, ‘A degree is the key to opening so many doors.’”
Martinez likes to remind others that the path to that degree is not always smoothly paved.
“The sacrifices you will make are worth it,” says Martinez. “Having an associates or bachelor’s degree will open doors and opportunities that you otherwise just would not see. Will it be easy? No. But it’s worth it.”