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IU Latino studies professor believes in lifelong learning

Oct. 19, 2016

After receiving her doctorate in sociology from the University of Chicago, Sylvia Martinez, a California-native, planned to return home. Then, she found her perfect job at IU.

Jointly appointed as an associate professor in the Latino studies program and at the School of Education, Martinez is starting her 11th year with the university and said she keeps finding opportunities to learn.

Sylvia Martinez


“I thought I knew a lot when I graduated, but in my 10 years here I feel like I have gotten a second Ph.D.,” she said.

Through her work at IU, she strives to bring that same quality of learning to the Latino population in the United States. Research shows that Latinos tend to under-enroll, which means that despite their qualifications they tend to enroll in two-year community college programs rather than a four-year university, she said.

Martinez works with the IU Balfour Scholars Program and their annual Balfour Pre-College Academy event to bring Latino students, as well as other minority groups, to IU’s campus. She works with them in choosing a university that is appropriate for them while also giving them the taste of a great college campus such as IU.

Whether she is working with visiting high school students or teaching her own students in the classroom, Martinez is used to being the facilitator of education. But sometimes her students expose her to new areas of learning, too.

Last year, a student came to Martinez with the idea for an event that would combine Latino studies education and issues in sustainability, which she pledged to help the student with. One of the event speakers, Julian Agyeman, challenged Martinez to think about her work a little differently than she had before.

“I went to the Q&A with the two scholars, and we were all going around the table introducing ourselves. I remember I started my introduction by saying, ‘I’m Sylvia Martinez, and I don't work with issues of sustainability,’” she said. “But, Julian pushed back and asked me if I looked at issues of educational inequality, to which I said, ‘Yeah, I do.’ Then he told me, ‘You do tackle issues of sustainability.’ I had never thought of it that way because I didn't really understand how sustainability was defined and how broad it actually is.”

She soon found herself applying to be a part of the Sustainability Community of Practice Workshop offered annually by IU’s Office of Sustainability.

Participating in the workshop opened her eyes to the fact that sustainability does include the work that she and her colleagues do in the area of Latino studies. Martinez said she left the three-day workshop feeling encouraged to find ways to incorporate topics of sustainability into her own courses as well as into the department as a whole.

She didn’t waste any time in doing so.

During the sustainability workshop, Martinez and the others had visited the IU Heating Plant and created a concept map, with energy as the center focal point from which everything else extended. For her fall course "Latino Studies in the U.S.," Martinez re-conceptualized energy as human effort to start a discussion with her students surrounding Latino labor conditions.

The concept map she created for her course illustrated how all the topics fit together, in that human effort is the energy from which all other issues, like educational attainment and health outcomes, stem. She was able to add a new unit on the impacts of the environment on things like health and working conditions and got her students to think about Latino studies as a system.

“The workshop helped me to not only create this concept map but to think of it as a system of connecting issues,” she said. “I think I taught this implicitly before, but now I hope to make it more explicit.”

A requirement of the workshop is that participants take what they learn and implement it into their teachings like Martinez did. For those interested in applying next year, she encourages them not to be intimidated by this task, for it wasn’t a hard goal to meet.

“I would encourage others to try it out,” Martinez said. “I think most faculty members identify as lifelong learners. We are in this field because we find it rewarding. I definitely learned something new through this experience.”

 Any IU faculty member is eligible to apply for the Sustainability Community of Practice workshop. Keep an eye out online for more details to come regarding the 2017 application process

Martinez's work at IU aligns with priorities outlined in the university’s Bicentennial Strategic Plan, including a commitment to student success and celebrating a vibrant community of scholars.

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