Mayra Martinez almost gave up on her dream for a higher education. She was a single mom working full time in Napa and commuting four days a week to UC Davis. After her first quarter, she dropped out.
“I told myself I can't do this,” Martinez said. “It's impossible. I have a child at home.”
She stayed out of school for a year before changing her mind.
Her parents had “left Mexico to give our family the opportunity to live the American Dream (and) reach success through hard work,” she said.
For Martinez, a college degree would give her the chance to advance her career. She would never have to work the same types of jobs or long hours as her parents. Perhaps most important, she would be able to provide for her son.
Martinez came to Napa from Mexico in 1990 when she was 5. Her father worked as a laborer for a local cast stone manufacturer. Her mother took up work as a housekeeper.
Martinez would attend Shearer School, Redwood Middle School and Napa High School. It was during her senior year at Napa High that Martinez took her first class in economics, a subject she “absolutely loved.”
“Economics has helped me understand and measure the consequences of the decisions I make — in my personal life and in business,” Martinez said.
With a background in economics, Martinez said, she felt she could take her career in any direction. But her life almost took a very different turn.
In Mexican culture, Martinez said, there is an expectation that women will marry young and start a family. At 19, she married her boyfriend. A year later, her son was born.
The marriage ultimately ended, but Martinez continued to pursue her dream of going to college.
She returned to UC Davis in July 2008. She graduated one year later with a bachelor’s in economics, becoming the first person in her family to earn a college degree.
During that year, Martinez took at least 22 units each quarter and continued to commute from Napa. The only time she ever stayed overnight in Davis was during midterms or final exams; she’d bring an overnight bag and stay at the university’s study lab.
Throughout her college career, Martinez worked in the marketing department full time at Diageo Chateau & Estate Wines in Napa. She typically worked weekends to make up for the time she spent in school.
During the day, her son would be cared for by her parents as well as a baby sitter. Between work and classes, Martinez would usually only see her son at night, while he was sleeping.
“It was really hard,” Martinez said. “I felt like a bad mother.”
Martinez often questioned herself and wondered whether she was doing the right thing. But she knew, ultimately, that her son would benefit from her time spent in school, she said.
“I reminded myself that it was only for a short period of time, and it’s really for the greater good,” Martinez said.
Pursuing the dream
After earning her bachelor’s degree and spending nearly a decade in the wine industry, Martinez said, she felt inspired to make a switch to health care.
Two years ago she joined St. Helena Hospital as a patient service adviser — an entry-level position. Martinez, now 28, has received two promotions since she was hired and now serves as the hospital’s director of client services, which provides education and enrollment services for patients.
About the same time she started at the hospital, Martinez decided to go back to school to pursue her MBA at Sonoma State University. She graduated last month.
Martinez said she hopes to one day advance to a senior administrative role in Adventist Health’s Northern California Network — the operator of St. Helena Hospital. But before that, Martinez said, she knows she’ll be heading back to college.
“I'm very passionate about higher education,” she said. “My end goal is to have a doctorate.”
In recent years, Martinez has been able to buy a home in Napa. And now, as a working professional, she has time for the more important things — attending her son’s sports activities and volunteering at his school, Pueblo Vista Elementary.
For many of the young people in her family, Martinez is an inspiration. Recently her brother graduated with a bachelor's in environmental economics from UC Berkeley.
“A big reason disadvantaged youths don't go to college is they don't know how,” Martinez said. “Their parents don't have that information.”
Martinez said that a lot of students are also discouraged by the costs. “It scares people,” she said.
Martinez paid for college with scholarships and student loans. Taking out a loan for college, she said, was one of the smartest investments she’s ever made.
“People take out loans for cars, but cars are disposable — education is not,” Martinez said. “If there’s one thing to take a loan out on, it’s education.”