Federal Program Helping Eastern Washington University Transform Lives

SPOKANE, Wash. Martin Meraz-Garcia would drive his mother to the Tri-Cities fields at 4:30 in the morning and together they picked cherries and his nose would bleed, stinging with pesticides. This made him think back to his childhood in Mexico, one of 14 children, the son of a murdered father, and how he worked shining shoes in the street until the family moved to the United States.

Martin was teased so ruthlessly his first day in sixth grade that he told his mother he would never return, and she insisted he go back, and then one day as a teen in the orchards he realized that even if he were the fastest cherry picker in the world, he would never rise out of this poverty.

He decided that day to be anything but a field worker.

And now he has a doctorate and he married his Pasco High School girlfriend, Christina Torres Garcia. She has a doctorate too, and they both teach at Eastern Washington University.

Martin is 35, Christina is 32. And they tell their stories in an almost breathless way, as if they can’t believe all that has transpired in their lives.

They are both “firsts.” Martin was the first in his family to graduate from high school, and then college, and then he earned that Ph.D.

Christina’s older brother was the first to get a college degree in her family, but she scored two other family firsts, a master’s degree followed by the Ph.D.

They tell their stories often, especially to students who are also firsts and struggling with questions they cannot call home with, because their parents do not know the college culture.

You just keep going, they tell the students.

You just repeat “Why not me?”

Christina tells them of moving to the United States from Mexico when she was 12. Although she was smart, school officials wanted to place her in sixth grade, but she pushed back and got into eighth grade. At Pasco High School she took AP classes as well as ESL classes, and she never doubted she would go to college.

And Martin tells them how he was funneled into auto mechanic classes in high school and did well enough to open his own shop senior year. He says he might have been content to be an auto-body businessman the rest of his life had Christina not said “you are going to college.” So he did.

And college wasn’t a snap. But they found support at Eastern through federal programs set up for firsts like them. They found mentors.

Sally Burge and Karen McKinney, women who once oversaw the programs for firsts at EWU, told them about the Ronald E. McNair program, named for a Challenger astronaut and designed for students with doctoral potential.

The mentors told them: “You are good candidates. You will have Ph.Ds.”

In his college summers, when Martin was offered a $2,500 stipend to do research, he thought back to those cherry orchards and marveled that he would be paid to read in a library, a roof over his head.

So they pursued doctorates at Washington State University. Martin got his in 2007; Christina in 2009.

Their success changed their extended families, in ways subtle and grand.

For instance, both of Christina’s parents, inspired by their college-going children, earned their GEDs. Her mother, Emma Mendoza Bravo, then took cosmetology classes and opened a hairstyling salon in Pasco.

The families didn’t always understand just what they were doing. Why were they in school so long? Why no children in their 20s?

But the families showed up at their graduations. And they cried. And Martin credits his mother, Gregoria Meraz Sanchez, for insisting he stay in that sixth-grade classroom long ago.

Younger family members have followed in the footsteps of Christina and Martin. Christina’s cousin is now a student at EWU.

Martin is an assistant professor of Chicana/Chicano Studies. This week, Christina was named EWU’s director of the Ronald E. McNair Post Baccalaureate Achievement Program, following the footsteps of her mentors.

This dynamic duo do not consider themselves extraordinary. They do not brag.

They merely tell the facts of their journey from the streets of Mexico, from the orchards of the Tri-Cities, from the ESL and AP classes of Pasco High School, to their degree-lined offices on EWU’s campus.

It’s a story that leaves you breathless, too.