Celebrating Latino Leaders: Andrea Martinez
"I always thought about the people who didn’t have access to education and how lucky I was that despite our struggles, I always had school as my stable place."
Assistant Dean, College of Arts and Sciences, Fairfield University
Born in Colombia, Andrea moved to the United States at the age of five with her mother and sister. The family eventually settled in Stamford, CT. One of the most important things to her family was education and so her mother made sure that no matter what challenges they faced, school came first. It was a tough adjustment for Andrea and her family, who were the only Hispanic and immigrant family in the neighborhood. Andrea struggled to find where she fit in until things started to look up for her in high school.
“By the time I got to high school, I had gained some confidence” Andrea says. “I had also made a decision early on that I didn’t want to be a statistic; I didn’t want people to put me in a box and label me ‘ you’re Hispanic’ and ‘you’re an immigrant’ and ‘you’re a woman’ which means ’fill in the blank.’ I felt very strongly that I didn’t want to live my life to prove something, but I also thought it was important for me to demonstrate to people that ‘yeah, I am all of those things’ and ‘I can do a lot of things’ and ‘maybe things you thought I couldn’t do, I can do.’”
Although high school was going very well for Andrea, she hit a rough patch upon the news of her father’s murder.
“That was a transformative time for me.,” Andrea says. “I was just starting high school and it kind of shifted our family a bit. It was the first time I realized I needed to become independent. I needed to stand on my own two feet and be strong for my mom. I needed to make sure that my life was together because she had a lot going on. So high school was great, but it was also challenging.”
Finding Her Calling
“I felt very strongly that I needed to step out of my comfort zone. Like a lot of things throughout my life, I felt like I needed to do something to help me to grow and become an independent person. So I choose to go away to school.”
After graduating from UCONN, Andrea took a year off before returning to school at Fairfield University. As a graduate student, Andrea studied community counseling which is now the clinical mental health counseling program. Again, her choice to further her education meant balancing work and academics as she worked full-time as a legal assistant 3 out of the 4 years she was in graduate school. Her time in graduate school only furthered her passion for helping others and it also provided an opportunity for a lot of introspection.
“Especially when it came to education, I just always felt so grateful to have been able to do well enough in school to obtain a college education and beyond,” Andrea says. “I always saw it as a privilege to be able to do that and just really loved learning and being in the classroom environment. It was a humbling experience for me because with every achievement, in my heart and mind, I always thought about the people who didn’t have access to education and how lucky I was that despite our struggles, I always had school as my stable place. I was always so grateful for the people at school who really believed in me and encouraged me to reach my full potential. That’s an ongoing journey as I strongly believe in life-long learning.”
“It’s really fulfilling for me to be able to share with them that I also know what it is like to be first generation, to be at a predominately white institution and having to navigate things on your own. I love being able to model to students that you can overcome barriers if your work hard, if you use resources, if you advocate for yourself.”
While an administrative job was not her first choice, she has found she is right where she needs to be. She has a lot of empathy for the students she works with knowing herself what it feel like to navigate through college with little to no help.
“On paper, my story seems that it was easy but it wasn’t,” Andrea says. “I had a lot of barriers. Anything from access to resources, access to information, knowing what my rights were, knowing what I was eligible for and so I think one of the hardest things is that Latinos don’t always know their rights.”
Andrea says overcoming barriers is not unique to her story, but immigrants as a whole. She says it took a long time for her to receive her citizenship. She and her family found it hard to navigate the legal system and obtain the right documents to do so.
“I think it is important, especially now given the political climate for Latinos to know those organizations that are going to help them whether it is education or whether it is a community resource to know that they matter, to know that it’s okay to advocate for yourself, to ask a question. But it’s tough because I think a lot of people are stuck, especially now.”
While Andrea was very vocal in regards to her rights, she says it is common in the immigrant community to not “rock the boat.” She finds it sad that people are so afraid to exercise their rights in spite of injustices. Her solution – seek help.
“For the future we need to support each other. We need to come together. We need to support those people in our community who may not have the courage to have a voice.” Andrea says.
Andrea’s involvement with the Progreso Latino Fund serves to her notion of supporting people in her community.
“PLF is the first group I have been a part of that I have been privileged to know people who are Latino and are leaders and are driven,” Andrea says. To be amongst other Latinos who are like me very driven, who are involved in their community, it’s been inspiring and the work that we do giving back to the community is so important. I love that each of us brings a different perspective.”