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December 2015

Student Spotlight: Paola Martinez

Paola Martinez
Paola Martinez

21-year-old honors student says culturally sensitive public health programs will help prevent malnourishment, obesity

Meet Paola Martinez. She's building a career where health and culture collide.

The middle daughter of Guatemalan immigrants, Martinez, 21, has seen first-hand how a family's culture can affect its approach to food. In Guatemala, she says, children are often under-nourished because their families lack transportation to acquire healthy foods and produce. In the United States, on the other hand, where unhealthy food is so plentiful, diabetes and obesity are common concerns.

A UTSA Honors College student and public health major, Martinez conducted research to better understand how parenting styles and psychological acculturation influence diet and exercise in low socioeconomic Mexican American families.

"If you look at a lot of existing public health programs, they try to change the diet of the participants in the study, but the participants don't want to adhere to the programs because they're giving them a Western diet. We need to teach people healthy habits using their home diets from their home countries."

Martinez is particularly focused on reaching children, who have the potential to learn good eating habits early on. She notes, though, that any program created to help children also would have to address the adults in their lives.

"Even if you teach the kids all these healthy habits at school, when they go back home, who's feeding them? Who's buying the food? Who makes the decisions?" she asks. "In my research, I'm looking at the parents and their parenting styles. How does that affect how the children eat? Mom may want to change the family's diet but dad may say no. We need programs that are family-based."

While at UTSA, Martinez conducted extensive research under the mentorship of UTSA Professor Erica Sosa in the College of Education and Human Development's Department of Kinesiology, Health and Nutrition. She's presented that research at UC Berkeley, in Buffalo, N.Y. and at UTSA.

While at UTSA, Martinez also participated in the Ronald E. McNair Scholars Program, an outreach program designed to help first-generation students from low-income, minority families prepare for and apply to graduate school.

"I thought I could never go to Berkeley or Stanford or another Tier One university, because I thought, 'How am I going to pay for it?'" she says. "The McNair program taught me how to apply to grad school and get fully funded. It really opened doors for me. I learned that even if I don't have the money, I can present my research at these far-off places. I can get my doctorate."

Ultimately, Martinez wants to earn her Ph.D. in health education or health promotion so she can pursue a career as a public health educator and clinician. She also wants to become a certified EMT to gain hands-on experience in the health care field.

Once she graduates, she'll decide if she wants to work in the U.S. or in Guatemala. If she stays in the U.S., she'll create diabetes and obesity prevention programs.

"Cardiovascular disease is a major killer here and it's preventable," she says.

She's also interested in global health. In Guatemala, where part of her family still lives, about 70 percent of Guatemalans are indigenous Mayans and many children are under-nourished. That statistic is due, in large part, to the diet practiced by the indigenous Guatemalan population – a population that continues to speak indigenous native languages instead of Spanish, the country's language of instruction.

Martinez credits her passion for health care to her older sister, Andrea, 22.

"If it wasn't for Andrea, I wouldn't be pursuing a degree in health care. She's my older sister, so she was the role model," said Paola. "I would always follow her. I was glued to her. When she said she wanted to be a doctor, I knew I wanted to be a doctor, too."

This December, Andrea also will graduate from UTSA. She aims to pursue a career in nursing. Just a year apart, the sisters are as close now as they ever were.

"We've kind of gone through the struggle together – just kind of learning how to be successful in America," Paola says. "It's a lot different than in Guatemala."

They're also doing everything they can to instill a college-going mindset in the youngest Martinez, Lorena, who's 17, and in the teens who attend their church youth group. It's Paola's hope that they all have as an enriching a college experience as she and Andrea have had at UTSA.

"UTSA is like home. I've always felt very comfortable here; it's a welcoming environment," Paola says. "The friends that I've made here are the friends I'll have for life."

– Christi Fish

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