By Sara Freeland/UGA Today
Like many younger siblings, Marina Martinez followed her older brother to college.
She always looked up to him and saw how much fun he had attending the University of Georgia, being on the spike squad and taking business classes.
But Martinez, already a lifelong Dawg fan, didn’t think UGA was for her because she was born with Down syndrome.
UGA’s Destination Dawgs program
Her brother, Juan Carlos Martinez, a 2018 graduate, encouraged her to apply to UGA’s Destination Dawgs program, where students with intellectual disabilities can attend UGA for two years and learn life skills, independent living and career development.
Two and a half years later, Martinez is finishing up the Destination Dawgs program, offered through UGA’s Institute on Human Development and Disability.
“I feel honored to do this. I wanted really badly to come here,” she said.
She loves “everything about UGA. It’s my home. It makes my heart happy.”
At UGA, Martinez has taken classes in marketing, public relations, advertising and journalism. Some of her Destination Dawgs specific classes have been health and wellness, healthy choices, learning for success, and “Work Ready, World Ready.” She’s met people from across campus and participated in the UGA Mentor Program.
She’s particularly interested in marketing—a subject she was introduced to in high school. “It is my passion,” she said. She’s learned about principles of marketing, consumer marketing and multicultural marketing. She loves learning and talking to people.
Through her time at UGA, Martinez has done video blogs, known as vlogs. She tries to show what her life attending UGA is like—from riding the bus to getting a caramel macchiato at Starbucks, from taking classes in the Terry Business Learning Community to watching “The Bachelor” on Mondays with her roommates.
She is an advocate for Down syndrome, and part of her work is to educate the community about what living with the disability is like. The other part is to inspire others to take advantage of opportunities and grow their skills.
“If I could sit with others with Down syndrome, I’d say, ‘Go to college.’ I want to show them how they can do it themselves. Because I socialize with people of all abilities,” she said. “I know I can live independently. I keep structure [in my day]. I keep track of my life. I’m trying to use all opportunities [I’ve been given] for 22 years now, and I really love what I am doing and try to be the best that I can be.”
She’s worked incredibly hard to get to where she is now—undergoing heart surgery, physical therapy, speech therapy and occupational therapy.
“I’ve improved all my skills since day one,” she said. “At first, I didn’t know what’s going to happen to me, but now I’m doing fine. I’m really proud that I’ve made it so far.”
Bringing joy to UGA
She does it all with “an aura of love and positivity,” said Karis Hill, senior coordinator for leadership in the department of engagement, leadership and service. “She is simply one of a kind. From her infectious laugh to her radiant smile, having Marina in the Leadership UGA program was such an impactful experience. She challenged her peers to think critically about how they promote and support the inclusion of all students at UGA. She is a joy to teach and a joy to learn from.”
Jennifer Tull, an intern with the Destination Dawgs program, also said Martinez is a joy to work with. “She is one of the most confident women I know, and that confidence extends into her being an incredible advocate. Not only does she advocate for herself, but she also advocates for everyone that might come after her so that they might have an even better experience than she did. She is a beautiful example of strength and love being combined to create real change.”
And as Martinez finishes up her Certificate in College and Career Readiness, she said she’s a little sad to leave—especially to leave her friends. “I wish I could stay longer,” she said.
One of the best connections she’s made is through an internship experience with UGA’s Institute on Human Development and Disability. IHDD’s Whitney Ostrander, the outreach and dissemination program coordinator, encouraged Martinez to do the vlog. Martinez has loved the opportunity and says it’s one of her favorite memories of UGA.
Like many other May 2021 graduates, Martinez will be looking for a full-time job after graduation. But first, she’ll be celebrating her accomplishment by going on vacation with her family, who have supported her all along the way.
“I’m unbelievably proud of Marina for graduating,” said her brother. “She has always wanted to be treated fairly and given the same opportunities as everyone else, and I think her success at UGA is proof of how much she is capable of accomplishing. Marina has such a fierce sense of pride in being able to call herself a UGA student, and she has so much joy simply being on campus.
“Marina has grown tremendously over her time in Athens, and she has loved the freedom that comes with college. Whether it’s getting involved in various campus organizations and ministries or hanging out with her friends, she has shown how she can live independently and truly take care of herself. I’m so proud of her, and I will always be her biggest supporter. She is the most caring and loving person I know, and I’m a better person because of her.”