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Fort Hays State welcomes new president PDF Print E-mail
Saturday, 01 November 2014 09:41

Newly-named president of Fort Hays State University Dr, Mirta Martin talks with L&T Publisher Earl Watt Monday about her trip from being born in Cuba to becoming president of FHSU.


Dr. Mirta Martin vists Liberal


• Leader & Times


After Dr. Edward Hammond retired as president of Fort Hays State University last summer, the college’s board went looking for a replacement. They decided it should be someone who is exceptional and not just in education but maybe someone from business or even the military would be considered, according to Hammond.

Who they found would prove to have been very successful in business and education – Dr. Mirta M. Martin. She was named president of FHSU effective July 1.

“Dr. Martin is a very unusual woman,” Hammond said, when both were in Liberal earlier this week. “She was born in Havana, Cuba, and at age 5, Castro was bound and determined to spit up families, so they sent the mother to one end of the island and the father to the other end. They took her, her grandmother and her sister and sent them to Europe. So, from the time she was 5 to 10, they lived in a convent in Spain – until they could get to the United States.

“She arrived at 10 years old in Miami – spoke no English – and eight years later she graduated at the top of her class in high school and gets a full ride to Duke (University),” he continued.

While at Duke, she met her husband, and after college, she went to work in banking, according to Hammond.

“Ten or 11 years later, she’s vice president in charge of international loans of the second largest bank in the United State and Canada,” he said. “She realizes she has two wonderful kids she’s not seeing because she speaks four languages and they were happy to put her on a plane and send her to wherever they wanted her to go.

“So, she quits – gets her doctorate and decides she can teach and raise a family,” Hammond continued. “Now, 10 years later, she’s president of Fort Hays.”

Hammond added Martin is not only the first woman in the school’s 112-year history, she’s also the first Hispanic president in the Kansas Regents’ system.

Martin said having Hammond available to talk with is proving invaluable since he is still in Hays, and she took the job because it was a “good fit,” she said.

“I told (the board) I’m looking for a place I can call home,” Martin said. “And I needed to do due diligence to make sure it was a good fit.

“When I set foot on the campus of Fort Hays, I met the people and I met the community, and I knew this was a place I could call home,” she said. “It’s been a wonderful transition, having that access to Dr. Hammond to tap into that experience and expertise.”

When asked what she believed she owed her success to, she said most of it had to do with her grandmother.

“I’ve often spoken about the fact that the pursuit of the American dream, the pursuit of happiness, is grounded in determination – and by leaving Cuba, leaving all family behind, with no one …,” Martin paused. “My grandmother was my age when she left Cuba, and she left with a 5-year-old and a 4-year-old – and just on a leap of faith.

“Then we came to this country – not speaking a word of English – on a leap of faith,” she continued. “But my grandmother always said if somebody else can do it, you can do it, too. It may take you longer, you may have to work harder, but if you give it your heart and your soul and you have faith – there is nothing you cannot achieve.”

As president of FHSU, she believes she brings a perspective to education that reaches out to immigrants and women, as well as anybody that wants an education.

“This is a wonderful country that has been a beacon of hope for immigrants throughout the ages,” she said. “We’re a country of hard-working people  – a country of sacrifice – that’s part of this country’s DNA.

“Anybody that comes to this country and is willing to work hard and have determination – and have faith – they can achieve the America dream. I’m very much a visual representation of that,” she added.

“When I came here, I didn’t speak a word of English – like most immigrants. And like a lot of people, I was going to school full time, I was working a full-time job, and my grandmother was working two full-time jobs,” Martin said. “On Sunday, I remember my friends would say, ‘Oh, this is the day we can get to sleep in,’ and I was thinking, ‘No, this is not the day we get to sleep in,’ because we would get up at 6 o’clock in the morning and go to mass at 7, and we’d be somewhere by 9 in the morning cleaning a house. My grandmother, my sister and I cleaned houses every Sunday from 9 to about 4.

“I saw my grandmother on her hands and knees in bathrooms cleaning them, and I was next to her,” Martin continued. “But throughout it all, she said, ‘Education is the one thing no one can ever take away from you, and you’re going to college.”

Martin credits a lot of her success to those teachers in her life that mentored her, and she looks at FHSU as a place community college students can easily transfer to.

“We’re like family at Fort Hays,” she said. “And we can develop a seamless transition to Fort Hays.”

Developing that determination is what makes students successful, and she always thinks back to her own life.

“I remember what it was like to go hungry,” she said. “My grandmother had tremendous pride, and she would never ask anyone to do anything. She always said, ‘God has given me two hands, I’m going to work for it.’ That’s my philosophy.”

She said her own life’s story melded with the spirit she found at FHSU.

“I was looking for a home, a place where my values were the values of my family and the institution,” she explained. “What I can tell you, and I’ll say it until I’m dead – the old pioneer work ethic is alive and well in Kansas.

“People do things because it’s the right thing to do,” Martin continued. “If somebody can come to this country and work on her hands and knees cleaning houses and then become Fort Hays president, nobody has any excuse – no one.”

Fort Hays currently has interlocal or other agreements with all 19 community colleges in Kansas as well as several technical institutes.

The announcement several months ago that FHSU would be establishing a satellite campus in Dodge City is still ongoing, according to Hammond.

“There isn’t an agreement, yet,” he said.

He explained Dodge City’s government, education and civic leaders approached FHSU looking for a merger with Dodge City Community College since the city had lost St. Mary’s of the Plains University some years ago. They had talked with Governor Sam Brownback, who gave the idea the green light, yet he made it clear the state’s budget would not allow a brand new four-year college to be erected.

“I came up with this idea of an institute, a technical institute,” Hammond said. “It would add a couple of thousand more students to their campus.

He told the Dodge City group it would cost $10 million for a building and would cost $5 million a year after that – if the state is willing to spend that and try and make it work.

“The people in Topeka said that’s doable,” Hammond said. “So it’s in the hands of the Dodge City community now.

“From our perspective – we’ve been meeting and talking with them – they just have to decide if it’s really what they want,” Hammond said. “If they don’t, we’re going to continue to work with anybody in Western Kansas that wants help.”

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