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Life's ups and downs add to teacher's perspective

As she neared high school graduation, Ana Martinez' world was turned sideways.

Her father had been diagnosed with thyroid cancer and was undergoing treatment. Martinez knew she was going to college—she had always been a stellar student—but with only her mother working, finances were tight. She chose to stay close to home, enrolling at Dalton State College in Dalton, Georgia, and helping with her three younger sisters.

Martinez, who recently graduated with her BSEd in English education, says she always knew she wanted to be a teacher. When her dad's health stabilized she applied as a transfer student to the College of Education at the University of Georgia, ready for the next challenge. With the help of the Goizueta Scholarship, Martinez was able to hone her skills as a teacher, and just before graduation learned she had been hired by Rockdale Career Academy in Conyers, Georgia.

"Dalton State was not as challenging to me; I wanted to eventually go on to something bigger," she said, noting that as the oldest sister, she also felt like she needed to set an example. "So I'm always trying to be the best example I can be."

But life as an undergraduate at UGA has its own struggles. Scholarships were essential, Martinez said, because classes and practicums (student-teaching) last 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Then there's homework and lesson plans to finish, making even a part-time job nearly impossible.

But while in Athens, Martinez was able to pursue her passion for teaching as a volunteer at the Boys and Girls Clubs helping kids with homework, and also at Oasis Catolico Santa Rafaela, a neighborhood on the outskirts of Athens with a large yet underserved Hispanic population. During breaks she would go home to Dalton and volunteer at a local high school, Morris Innovative High School, which works with struggling students who are trying to get back on track.

"I specifically chose (Morris) because Dalton is a primarily Hispanic community, so whatever I can help do over there, I can't wait to do it," she said.

Her own inspiration to be a teacher came from experiences in high school, when she formed a bond with her English teacher.

"I was in the 'college insight' program, so I had the same teacher for three years," Martinez said. "We really built a relationship, and writing was always something I enjoyed."

Now, as she embarks on her career, Martinez said she feels ready. Yes, she's excited to be a teacher. But after the ups and downs of the past few years, she says it's as if she's seeing the profession in a way that's less idealistic and more realistic.

"This whole year has changed how I see teaching, and for the better," she said. "You think you're going to change the world, and then you get in the classroom and realize it's a lot harder.

"This has been my hardest year. ... It's very hectic, juggling student teaching and classes. But I feel a lot more confident. I feel a lot stronger than when I came in. It's also been the most rewarding."

In between homework, finals, volunteering and creating lesson plans, she still finds the time to look back and see how far she's come in just a few years.

"I see my professors pushed us to be the best we can be," said Martinez, a graduate of the English Education program. "At the end of the day, I wouldn't be the teacher I am today if it weren't for this program."