Magazine Feature / People

Martinez paying it forward with enthusiasm

A sociology assistant professor is commanding attention for her teaching methods and research, and she is making inroads toward intercultural understanding of Latino communities. But she remembers what it was like to be on the other side of the lectern.

When Lisa Martinez was a freshman at the University of Texas, she felt shy and insignificant — one student among 50,000. She says she will never forget the professor whose interest in her success set the course for her academic career.

“It was my junior year in a sociology of gender class,” Martinez says. “The material was exciting, and it changed my thinking about a lot of things. I even read ahead of the assignments.”

Picking up on her enthusiasm, the professor asked Martinez to consider sociology as her major and subsequently encouraged her to join summer research programs, write a senior honors thesis and go to graduate school.

Now Martinez passes that enthusiasm and encouragement on to her own students, teaching them new perspectives on their way to debunking or discovering the source of negative Latino stereotypes that permeate mainstream media. In her Latinos in American Society course, Martinez coaches her students to develop informed opinions through research and data collection.

The popular myths Martinez and her students are trying to tackle are ones that even Latinos buy into, her students say. And many of those myths are media generated.

A student research project showed how images in magazines generate the stereotype of Latinos as disadvantaged or as machismo lovers.

Senior psychology major Julio Alas researched reasons behind high dropout rates among Latinos and then made a documentary about Latino students who graduate high school and go on to college.

“The significant factor contributing to the success of students,” Martinez says, “is having a support network of parents, peers and mentors in their lives saying, ‘Yes, you can go to college; yes, you should go to college’—people who can help them navigate the college application process.”

Her students have nothing but praise for Martinez. Even her non-Latino students catch her contagious zest for quantitative sociological studies.

“Professor Martinez is one of the most enthusiastic professors I have ever had at DU,” says Lindsay VanGilder, who graduated with a BA in criminology and Spanish this summer. “Even for a relatively dry class like Research Methods, Professor Martinez really worked to engage her students and get them excited about the material.”

After earning her PhD in sociology from the University of Arizona in 2004, Martinez spent a year at Northeastern University in Boston as an assistant professor of sociology. There she worked as co-principal investigator on a $15,000 federal grant to address the incidence of STDs and a high birth rate among Latina adolescents. The study focused on how those girls communicated with their mothers about sex.

Martinez has studied the ways Latino communities organize in Denver and in southern Colorado to mobilize political action.

In the current political climate of immigration reform debate, Martinez says one of the remarkable things is how diverse Latino populations — from Mexico, South America and other regions — are coming together as a unified body to work toward a common political goal.


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