Many people might not think that being a prison guard and an Army Reserve staff sergeant would be ideal preparation for mentoring young students. But then most people don’t know Hugo Martinez.
The 35-year old Lincoln, Nebraska, native credits his time working in a tough prison system and his military service as having given him both the patience and skills necessary to help at-risk youth from his hometown take charge of their education, and guide them to college as part of his job as an education specialist at the Upward Bound Program at the University of Nebraska.
"We make sure these students not only get into college, but we make sure that they graduate from college," Martinez told Fox News Latino.
Martinez is passionate about his work with Upward Bound because he can identify with many of the students that he mentors. Much like him, most of his kids come from first-generation immigrant families and working-class backgrounds and they struggled to fit into U.S. classrooms.
The reservist’s parents immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico, and Martinez, who attended Lincoln High School, said that he struggled as well. Instead of attending college afterward, Martinez went to work in the prison system before joining the Army and serving tours in Iraq.
"Joining the military was one of the best decisions I ever made," he said. "This country has given so much to me, and I wanted to give back."
When Martinez, who earned his degree in youth and family studies from Nebraska in 2013, sits down with a student to discuss an issue or a problem, he is confident that he can connect with them and that his own story will resonate with his charges.
"Just being able to identify with the students is huge," Martinez said. "I try to relate my story to them and let them see where I am coming from."
"It also doesn’t hurt to be bilingual," he added.
The Upward Bound program, Martinez said, aims to help at-risk students to graduate high school, and ensure their success in college, with a three-part process.
First, Martinez and his colleagues begin working with kids early in their high school careers, where they are able to help them focus on taking the right courses. Second, Martinez meets regularly with them to discuss grades and build an individualized student success plan for each, along with providing tutoring, time management and study skills classes.
The final part of the process brings the students to the University of Nebraska campus for six weeks in the summer to get a feel for life on a college campus.
For Martinez, the best of his job is when he sees a young person really connect and begin to take his or her education seriously.
"That’s the great part about it," he said. "When you see the light go on."
As for advice, Martinez said, "Si se puede, you can do it … I know it sounds cheesy, but its true, and you just have to believe in yourself."