Filmmaker gives a voice to first gen college students

This is part of the series Shore Stories: Life Along the Lakeshore columns by local residents about their lives.

2020 was a year of learning to manage expectations. I had just started a thriving personal training business in the heart of Chicago. My expectations for the business went up and then came sliding down due to the Corona-coaster. I once again had to uproot my life, pack, unpack, pivot, shift, and learn to adapt to an unconventional way of life in my hometown of Holland. All this while still learning to be a new mom to a growing baby boy.

Long days

My husband was working long days at home, so keeping my son silent and away from his father became my new challenge, as it did with millions of American households.  COVID-19 had me cooking and cleaning more than I ever had in my life. Daily meditation, stroller running with my son, and filling my head with inspirational podcasts was the only way I was able to mentally grit my way through this new required isolation. 

I began to grow extremely anxious because I could not plan my life, and irritable because I knew I was born for more. I had a dire need to be doing something outside the bounds of my duties as chief domestic engineer, wife, and mother. 

A post

I came across a Facebook post from TRIO Upward Bound stating that its upcoming 2020 summer session would be held virtually due to the pandemic. As an alumna of the program, I had flashbacks of how my summers on Hope College’s campus influenced the person I am today. 
Upward Bound alum Cynthia Martinez is making a documentary about the program.
The UB program is designed to enable low-income, first-generation students to thrive and prepare for college. How would a virtual program even be possible? What would a virtual program look like? 

Upward Bound students already have a multitude of stressors, financial hardships, and challenges from living in immigrant households. And now, the universe wanted to rob them of a very meaningful summer of learning, socializing with their peers, and dining at Phelps Hall. 

My thoughts of the UB students were waking me up at night. I wondered if the UB directors would allow me to use my journalistic background and tell their stories through a documentary.

Connecting and gearing up

After some trepidation, I finally emailed the directors of the program and they, without hesitation, granted me full support to film their students and their summer program. I was given the names of six students. 

With the encouragement of my husband, I used our summer vacation money to purchase a camera, lens, tripod, memory cards, batteries, and hard drives. I watched the expenses of making a documentary pile up quickly. I even had to hire a second camera person for some film shoots because there was so much to cover. 

This endeavor was all on me. I wanted to create awareness around the minority community in my hometown and to shed a light on the students that came from the same background and financial hardships as I did.

Speed bumps

It took five weeks to capture the virtual summer program. We started off with some technology glitches. In fact, some students needed hot spots because the internet was not easily accessible to all. 

Cynthia Martinez films Daniel, a student in the TRIO Upward Bound program.Studies show economic disparity is among the factors that can limit students’ chances for academic success. According to McKinsey & Company, a prominent consulting firm, the pandemic could exacerbate existing achievement gaps among minority and low-income students due to socio-economic issues by 15-20%.

Even with the speed bumps, that didn’t stop the powerhouse team of Director Liz Colburn and Assistant Director Andrea Mireles, who have been running the UB program at Hope College for more than 37 years. 

Each week, I watched these ladies, and their staff of three, pull off the feat of carefully crafting 76 home supply kits for their students. This was followed by parking lot meet-ups to distribute the kits to each student at their respective high schools. 

A fly on the wall

Wearing a mask and keeping hand sanitizer in my back pocket, I became a fly on the wall in the homes of the students and their teachers. I watched them wake up early, solve algebra problems, recite poems, discuss fake news, and dissect fetal pigs, all online. 

During the final weeks of online learning, most of the students expressed to me the strong desire to be back in school. Once again, curiosity flooded my brain. With no vaccine or any sense of normalcy on the horizon, what would school look like for these students? Putting my camera down was not an option, their stories weren’t over yet.         

I had established a strong sense of trust with each student and their families. Not only were they sharing about the pandemic disrupting their lives, they were sharing about what it means to be a Latinx student during a tumultuous year of Black Lives Matter protests, where racism and stereotypes have become more prevalent. 

Keeping the camera rolling

I started to focus on the harsh realities of growing up in an immigrant household and the desire to make their parents proud because of the sacrifices they have made. I decided to keep the camera rolling. 

I plan to continue filming until June, when four of the UB students graduate from high school. According to Johns Hopkins University, there have been more than 400,000 deaths, and counting, due to COVID-19.

2020 has shown me the fragility of life, and I don’t want to be on my deathbed wondering what I could have done to make a difference in my community. I may not be an essential worker, but the stories and themes of the Upward Bound documentary are essential to humanity. 

They cannot be forgotten during this pandemic. You can support this project by contributing to my Kickstarter campaign. 

Cynthia Martinez is a mother, journalist, and proud Hope College TRIO Upward Bound alumna.