BY AMANDA SOTELO
HARLINGEN — At 14 years old, Carolina Martinez came to the United States for the opportunity to continue her education. As an immigrant, she spent many years facing homelessness and poverty.
Now, a decade later, her “American dream” of a college degree is coming true.
The Veracruz native will be graduating from Texas State Technical College tonight with an associate degree in Surgical Technology. She is the first in her family to graduate from college — a feat accomplished in the face of great hardship.
“I was so scared to leave my home in Veracruz,” said Martinez. “But at that time it was my only hope to continue school. At 14 in Veracruz I had to start paying for school and we couldn’t afford it. So it was either move or drop out and work.”
Martinez’s mom was already working in the United States sending money home to her daughter and her son, who were living with their grandmother. Martinez said her dad was never in the picture.
“I moved in with my mom, my stepdad and my half siblings when I got to the U.S.,” said Martinez. “School was challenging. I was in an ESL class for two years and my teacher began pushing me to do more.”
That teacher at Port Isabel High School was Eric Hanstead. He encouraged and pushed her to enroll in Advanced Placement classes and participate in University Interscholastic League academic contests.
“I never thought I could do any of it,” said Martinez. “But he taught me that, ‘Where there is a will, there is a way,’ and that has carried me through my hardest days.”
She graduated from high school in 2011 but, because of financial reasons, college was not in the picture for Martinez. She had no choice but to work to help support her brother and grandmother who had stayed in Mexico.
“We didn’t have money for college,” said Martinez. “In fact, my mom said there was no point in me going to college, so she wouldn’t help me apply for financial aid.”
During this time, Martinez’s stepfather was deported, her half siblings were sent to live in Mexico with him, and after several months, Martinez’s mom decided to leave the states to join the rest of her family. This left Martinez alone without a place to call home.
“I was living in a messed up trailer home. It was broken,” said Martinez. “My life was broken, but the one good thing that came out of everything is that my mom helped me apply for financial aid before she left.”
Soon after Martinez started college at TSTC, she was kicked out of her trailer and found herself homeless.
For nearly a year, Martinez stayed wherever she was welcomed. She was in and out of friends’ homes.
It was not until Surgical Technology Program Director Robert Sanchez and her Instructor Anna San Pedro led her to TSTC housing, that she finally had a steady roof over her head.
“I’m glad I had saved my income tax return, because that’s what I used to move into the dorms,” said Martinez. “The program was stressful, my living situation was stressful, but I can say that I made it. I’m graduating.”
Martinez is graduating with a 3.5 grade-point average and now working at Doctor’s Hospital at Renaissance as a surgical technology intern. She will find out if she passed her national exam at the end of the month, which will determine if she will be hired full-time at DHR.
“Carolina has really persevered; she did whatever she could to succeed,” said Sanchez. “I’m very proud of her and everything she has accomplished. I admire her determination and I know that if she continues to work hard and embrace the profession, she will do excellent and have a better quality of life.”
Martinez said her experiences and the hands-on training she received at TSTC have prepared her for a career that will change her life forever.
“It’s been hard doing all of this on my own. I won’t have family at graduation, either,” said Martinez. “But TSTC and my instructors have changed my life for the better. I can’t wait to work full-time doing what I love, helping my family back in Veracruz and finally being able to afford a place I can officially call my home.”
Martinez is one of 358 students graduating from TSTC with either a certificate or associate’s degree tonight at Harlingen Municipal Auditorium.