A former Rebel is coming back home. Magdalena Martinez graduated with a bachelor's degree in leadership and management from UNLV's Lee Business School. While she saw herself going into the business world early on, she took a different path after graduation.
Martinez went on to earn a master's degree in education from Harvard University and a Ph.D from the University of Michigan, where she conducted research on the links between secondary education and college. Her research looked at how policies and stakeholders influence student success in higher education, as well as their ability to even make it into college in the first place. As the new director of education programs with The Lincy Institute, she'll further those studies locally in hopes of keeping with the Lincy mission to translate research into local policy and practice.
Why did you choose to come back to UNLV?
Many reasons. I think it's an exciting time to be a part of UNLV and the Southern Nevada community. In many ways we're at a tipping point. The Great Recession was really critical on a number of levels, particularly for a major university in Southern Nevada planning its future. Although the recession was devastating, it also gave us an opportunity to be reflective, and look at where we need to be and where we're going. When I finished my Ph.D I had to make a decision of where I wanted to apply my skill set and knowledge. ... It's important to be a part of that change and that enthusiasm we see in our community, and that planning for our future.
Where did you grow up?
I was born and raised in Los Angeles, Calif., and went to high school in Las Vegas. I pretty much grew up in an urban city and attended public schools. I was the youngest of six. Both my parents were Mexican immigrants. My father was a farm worker. In many ways I am a common story for immigrants in so far as my parents had very little formal education, but had the drive to improve themselves and their children. I'm able to reap the benefits of their hard work as immigrants of this country, now my country.
Why did you switch your focus to education?
I come from a family of entrepreneurs and small business owners. Early on I really thought that's where my life would take me. When I became involved in student organizations on campus at UNLV, I learned of the transformative power of higher education. I realized I wanted a career in higher education. I wanted to understand the role of institutional policy and practice and what student success meant for the student and the institution, at a macro level, the federal and state level. That really was the fire in the belly at the time I entered graduate school, that is trying to understand the complexities of higher education and student success and policy.
What's the biggest misconception about education?
That success squarely lies on the shoulders of the student and parents. Within the research field, you still have a very dominant framework or deficiency perspective: What is the student/community/parent/school lacking?
For example, a major misconception when you look at issues of English language learners is about the students and families' motivation to acquire a second language or to be academically successful. From research, we know is that many barriers over time come from institutional policy at the school, state, and regional level. That's where research is important because you ask a question and have to examine it from multiple perspectives. And you have to consult with colleagues who are doing similar work. You're not just going on a hunch, but being informed by research and data.
What's the biggest challenge in your field?
The biggest challenge is also the biggest opportunity. There's a new expectation of institutions in regards to student outcomes. Take higher education, for example. It used to be that institutions were rewarded for how many seats they could fill at the beginning of the semester. Now the conversation has changed to also consider outcomes. I think legislators, communities and even students are asking institutions to be more accountable for their resources and how resources are translating to outcomes. The outcomes are graduation rates and completion rates to name a few. There are different expectations but it's an opportunity to also think about how we do our work differently.
Proudest moment in your life?
Walking across the UNLV graduation stage. I was the first in my family to get a college degree. Despite financial difficulties and other barriers, I was successful at UNLV. The university laid a good foundation for my future and for pursuing graduate studies.
One tip for success?
When I work with students, one thing I try to emphasize is to know yourself. Know your strengths. Know where you want to go. Know what work inspires you to get up in the morning. Surround yourself with people who can support those strengths and skills.
If you could fix one thing in the world, what would it be?
I'd want to build a better community for my children, a community my children can be proud of in our changing region, the Southwest. I would love to see a continued conversation about the changing role of America and particularly the Southwest and how we are the new frontier.
What would people be surprised to know about you?
I think people would be surprised to know that my parents are Mexican immigrants. I think a lot of people have a lot of assumptions based on appearances.
Who was your favorite professor and why?
It was the first person who ever asked me where I was going to grad school -- Laura Gutierrez Spencer, who was a professor at UNLV in the foreign language department. She's now in New Mexico. Simple interactions are sometime critical, pivotal points for individuals. I had never considered graduate school before. I've had a lot of fantastic professors.
What can't you work without?
I can't work without good colleagues and good co-workers. The work I do builds on other work. My work builds on theirs and theirs builds on mine. It's important to be in a work culture that's respectful of the individual and that is transparent and seeks to do good, to improve the wellbeing of our community.
Who is your hero?
So many come to mind. Cesar Chavez, MLK, even Gandhi. The thing that strings them all together is a desire to improve the wellbeing of individuals, particularly the most vulnerable populations. I have many heroes and those are some of them.
Reading. Spending time with family and friends. I'm married and have an 8-year-old and 6-year-old. Most of my time revolves around their activities.