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Teachers College, Columbia University
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Isabel Martinez

They say that everything is bigger in Texas, and the ambitious dreams of Isabel Martinez are no exception. The doctoral student from Houston envisions a future that encompasses professorial endeavors, research initiatives, and community activism, and believes that TC is the place that will help her to attain these goals. "I felt like I couldn't create a community-wide transformation without credentials," Isabel says when reflecting upon her work back home, and so began a journey that led her to the College.

A 1996 alumna of Rice University, Isabel studied sociology as an undergraduate, all the while remaining firmly committed to the ideal of equality by means of education. During the summer before her senior year of college, she began to tutor students in grades K-12 for Chicano Family Center*, a community-based organization in southeast Houston servicing a primarily Mexican-American population. Isabel continued as a tutor throughout her final year of school, and recognized the center's tremendous potential to change the lives of the youth whom it serviced. Inspired by what could be, Isabel told the organization's executive director that this "could turn into a movement to get the community focused on college."

The director supported Isabel's vision, granting her the green light to move forward with her plans by hiring her to work full-time to develop her ideas. While maintaining the tutorial component that was already operating, Isabel enhanced what CFC offered by creating specialized programs specifically targeting pupils of grades K-5, middle school, and high school. She received support from corporations like Exxon, state agencies such as the Texas Commission on Alcohol and Drug Abuse, and civic groups including the Houston Area Women's Club. Students were recruited from 12 area schools via recommendations made by teachers, counselors, and magnet program coordinators. A variety of activities was made available to those interested. Her Wonders of Writing (WOW) provided an outlet for elementary children to express themselves through their written words, a skill they were able to hone because of the partnership that Isabel created with the Houston's Writers in Schools and Imprint projects. Middle school students participated in Brighter Futures, a project created by TC alumnus Michael Carrera with the aim of reducing teen pregnancy by motivating students through enrichment activities. High schoolers enrolled in her Countdown to College visited universities, prepared to take the SAT, worked towards improving critical thinking and analytical skills, and chatted with college alumni groups over breakfast during Saturday morning workshops. Although not all of her students were in honors classes, Isabel and her team also acted as advocates, helping them to get placed in more advanced courses when their aptitude reflected the ability to successfully undertake the challenge.

When asked how she developed such unique programs for kids, Isabel reflects, "A lot of this was based on my own knowledge of what went into college-going programs. I tried to make as many contacts in the community as I could." Her efforts paid off, and she was even able to help students secure summer internships and volunteer positions. "My whole push was college and college admissions," she recalls. Isabel enlisted her students' parents to help get that word out to the community. For instance, parents were often hesitant about allowing their 10th graders to participate in a week-long field trip of east coast colleges, but Isabel recruited many to be chaperones for the excursion. Upon returning home from the trip, their excitement about the myriad of opportunities available for their children had a trickle-down effect, and they became staunch advocates who shared their experiences with other parents. "I wanted kids to realize that there is inequity in education, and that they had to aspire to go to school so that they could overcome this," she says. "It was also about cheerleading, and getting them to believe that they could go to the schools that they wanted to."

After a 4-year stint at CFC, Isabel felt that "to do more, I would need to go away and become credentialed." It was at that point that she began to explore graduate school programs. She was hoping to ground her community work in theory and other research. Throughout this period, she made a conscious effort to let her students know about her graduate school application process. "I really strongly feel that I'm a role model, and that they can do it, too." Undecided between studies in social work and education, a visit to University of Colorado at Boulder turned into a 2-year stay once she fell in love with the campus and the institution's program in Educational Foundations, Policy, and Practice which was rooted in sociology and anthropology. Nevertheless, her scholarly interests led her to Teachers College in Fall 2002 to begin the Ph.D. program in Sociology and Education, a move that she says is attributable to the College's prestige, plethora of programs, and research initiatives. "There is such a variety that I could tailor my own program." She also cites the opportunity to enroll in sociological theory classes at Columbia University's Graduate School of Arts and Sciences to complement her TC courses to be a "holistic approach" that she enjoys.

A key impetus behind her move was also the recent research indicating that Mexican immigrants are the fastest growing population in New York City. Most of the data on this group focus on its numbers in the southwestern region of the United States, but she viewed this trend in the northeast as a potential topic of study because she "had a curiosity to be at the beginnings of a new community." In fact, Isabel is currently involved in an independent study with Professor Francisco Rivera-Batiz who recently published findings about his groundbreaking study on the subject. Isabel is also a graduate assistant for Sociology and Education professor Amy Stuart-Wells with whom she is working to examine issues regarding school choice and its effects in districts. The research team is in the process of composing literature reviews, selecting sites for study, and drafting a proposal for funding. Last year, Isabel worked closely with Michelle Knight of Curriculum and Teaching to investigate the college-going processes of students of color in the Bronx. The team went a step beyond simply researching its subjects by providing services to the youth similar to Isabel's program in Houston, including hosting workshops on applying to college and acting as liaisons between students and their counselors.

As co-chair of Coalition of Latino Scholars at TC, Isabel is working collaboratively with the group on several major projects, one of which is Hispanics Serving Institutions (HIS) that seeks to heighten the presence of Latino students at the College by encouraging them to apply for admission and then providing support upon their enrollment so that they graduate in increased numbers. The group is tapping into local colleges such as John Jay and Lehman College for this initiative. In addition, she teaches English as a Second Language for Asociacion Tepeyac, a human rights organization that serves a mostly Mexican immigrant population in the City.

Isabel anticipates completing her program in 2006, and is considering examining how the schooling experiences of immigrant populations in their native countries ultimately impact their education in their host countries. When queried about what the future may bring, Isabel says that she will be "definitely linked to community organizing and efforts, [perhaps] as a professor who's an activist-researcher." And what about the outcomes of her previous outreach work? One of her former students headed off to Depauw University in Indiana where she knew no one but yet decided to take a chance for the betterment of her future. "The fact that she did that is brave," Isabel states proudly. The young woman even recently contacted Isabel about what to look for and how best to apply to a Masters program. Others have matriculated at University of Texas and Texas A&M, majoring in engineering and pre-medical studies. She continues to meet with them when she visits Texas, and stays in contact with many by sending them scholarship information and regularly exchanging e-mails. Having made such a difference in the community that she holds close to her heart, there is no doubt that Isabel's efforts will be long remembered not only by those youth as they transition into adulthood, but also by others whom she is certain to impact as she makes her mark in all of her pursuits.

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