Story by ELIZABETH ROMAN
Courtesy of MassLive and the Springfield Republican
SPRINGFIELD -- When Andres Martinez heard his name called at the Holyoke Community College graduation Saturday morning at the MassMutual Center in Springfield, it was a dream 30 years in the making.
Martinez, a 54-year-old native of Venezuela, did not have any family in the audience to cheer him on, because political turmoil in his native country makes it unsafe for them to travel here.
"I haven't seen my mother in 17 years," said Martinez who wore a red, yellow and blue sash over his graduation gown highlighting the colors of Venezuela.
"A dear friend of mine sent this for me and I will have friends and people who care about me at the graduation," he said.
The road to higher education has been paved with many obstacles for Martinez. Not only is he substantially older than many of the graduates, he also started his college journey back in Venezuela in the 1980s.
At the time Martinez was working and going to school at night to earn a law degree at the University of Venezuela.
In his fourth year of law school, his university was closed for a year following political unrest and demonstrations.
"It was a very challenging learning environment. We would be in class and armed men would come in and shut down the school, lock us in basements, turn off the power," he said. "My mother told me many times to quit, but I really wanted to get an education."
Eventually the situation became so dangerous that he decided the only way to get an education was to leave the country. He came to Springfield, Massachusetts because he had extended family here.
"I had also heard about the great schools in Massachusetts, some of the best schools in the country, so I wanted to come here," he said.
Martinez wanted to get an education, but first he had to learn the language.
"It was very difficult for me. I would go to the story time at the library and listen to people read to children, just so I could learn easy words in English," he said.
Not able to get a steady job or go to school because of the language barrier, Martinez decided he would volunteer. Aside from his interest in law Martinez also loved drawing and painting. He became a volunteer for the Spanish American Union in Springfield, teaching art to elderly people.
"It was great for them because they got to learn art, but it was great for me because I felt useful and I developed friendships," he said.
Martinez became so beloved by the staff and the volunteers that in 1995 he was highlighted in a column in the Union-News called "Springfield People," featuring an interview he gave to a reporter through an interpreter, just two years after he arrived.
"I got a lot of feedback from that article and one woman, a school teacher named Mrs. Phillips contacted me and offered to teach me English," he said. "We practiced every day after school and she really helped me so much. I owe her a lot."
He also started taking free English as a Second Language courses offered at night at local high schools and began the process to obtain his citizenship.
"I came here on a visa and it took me about seven years to obtain my citizenship. That whole time I was volunteering and trying to learn English," he said. In the back of his mind he knew he wanted to go back to school, but he was scared.
"I thought it would be too difficult, too expensive. I didn't know how to do it," he said.
For years Martinez volunteered teaching art to elders and people struggling with mental illness. He worked odd jobs, but he fostered the hope that he could go back to college, although not to finish his law degree, because he developed other interests over the years, particularly photography and cooking.
Martinez credits CareerPoint in Holyoke for leading him to HCC.
"I stopped in a few years ago to take some classes for an employment program and they said I could go to school full-time. I enrolled at HCC," he said.
At that point his English was much improved and he tested well in his language proficiency, making it possible for him to jump right into college courses.
"It was very difficult at first. There were a lot of younger students and I did not feel my English was good enough to write papers. I had a breakdown, got depressed and thought about quitting, but people at the school they really encouraged me," he said.
Martinez credits his adviser Kristine Ricker Choleva, chair of Business/Hospitality at HCC, for helping him decide his career goals and for believing in him.
"I see her as a role model. She is so organized, so smart and she has helped me a lot," he said.
Saturday, Martinez graduated with two degrees, one in hospitality management and another in visual art and photography. He is a member of the Green Key Honor Society and the Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society, for community college students graduation with a 3.5 GPA or above.
His next goal is to earn a bachelor's degree and write a cookbook.
"I want to write a book about all of the wonderful recipes from all of the countries of Latin America. It will be a bilingual cookbook and I will take the photographs of the food as well," he said.
His hope is to go on to the University of Massachusetts in Amherst in the fall, although he is waiting on transcripts from Venezuela from a school that no longer exists.
"It's holding up the process which is very frustrating, but I hope it can be resolved and I can continue my education, because now I know what is possible," he said.
While it was hard leaving his family and his home more than 20 years ago, he is proud to live in the United States and thankful for the many people along the way who have encouraged him, Martinez said.
"I love my family and I love Venezuela, but I think of this as my home now. I am so proud to be a citizen and to contribute to my community," he said.
PHOTOS by CHRIS YURKO: (Left) HCC Green Key Honor Society members Andres Martinez and Lisa Ladas before HCC's 69th Commencement Saturday, May 28. (Right) Andres Martinez, center rear, celebrates with other members of the Green Key Honor Society before Convocation last fall.