Alum brings award-winning doc about first-gen students to WMU

Cynthia Martinez attended Western Michigan University to pursue her dream of becoming a pilot.

But soon after learning how to fly a Cessna 172 single-engine aircraft, Martinez had to leave the WMU’s aviation program because of mounting expenses she couldn’t afford. She switched to an aviation administration science major.

That experience of how financial access can cut short aspirations is an underlying theme of her award-winning documentary “First Voice Generation.”

“I'm excited for the impact the film is making, especially on our young people,” says Martinez, who graduated in 2006.

She’s  bringing her film to WMU. It will show at 3 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 7, in the WMU Student Center ballroom. Admission is free, and free parking is available behind Sangren Hall.

Dreams and struggles

"First Voice Generation" tells the stories of three Latinx high school students from Holland, Michigan, who were part of the TRIO Upward Bound Program, a pre-college preparatory program. It highlights their dreams of becoming the first in their families to go to college and how the COVID-19 global pandemic and virtual learning exacerbated their struggles.

A graduate of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, Martinez moved back home to Holland in 2020 to shine a light on the difficulties some students experience in navigating high school and higher education.

“I saw the challenges the pandemic was putting on first-generation students,” says Martinez. “I wanted to use my passion and my education to give a voice to Latinx students just like me. I wanted to give an inside look into our stories.”

Following the screening, Martinez will participate in a Q&A session.

The Latinx Employee Association is partnering with the Office of Diversity and Inclusion and the Office of the Provost to sponsor the screening. It is one of several events at Western celebrating Latino culture and the richness it brings to the campus community planned during Hispanic Heritage Month, which runs through Sunday, Oct. 15. 

“The film is very much a piece of history for the West Michigan community because the film highlights what the students were going through during the pandemic,” Martinez says. “We see what has happened in our community and in our state and nationally, how the pandemic impacted our education system and our students.”

Martinez believes that the pathway out of poverty is often through education. She hopes the film inspires better representation Latino teachers and school leaders in West Michigan as its Latino population continues to grow. 

The film’s screening is among several campus showings across Michigan during Hispanic Heritage Month, Sept. 15 to Oct. 15. Earlier, it was shown at Grand Valley State University, Michigan State University and Ferris State University. 

The film has been making the circuit of film festivals and colleges.The film won Best Independent Feature Documentary at its premiere at Central Michigan University’s International Film Festival, and Martinez won Best Director at the Mexican-American Film & Television Festival .

She’s managed to promote the film while completing another major project: the birth of her daughter. Now, 10 months old, she has accompanied her mom to several film festivals – making an adorable plus one.

Confronting challenges

Martinez understands the struggles of generational poverty all too well. She’s the granddaughter of Mexican migrant farm workers and the daughter of two teenage parents who had a rough start, she says. She graduated from West Ottawa High School, then earned her bachelor’s from Western Michigan University and a master’s from Columbia University’s School of Journalism.

She credits the TRIO Upward Bound program at Hope College as her bridge to college, showing her how to navigate a path that was unfamiliar to her family. The works with students in grades 8–12, who are interested in pursuing an educational program beyond high school.

In 2020, nearly 22% of U.S. undergraduate college students were Latinos, the second largest ethnic group enrolled at the undergraduate level. While Latinos outpace other ethnic groups as first-generation college students (44%), compared to Black (34%), Asian (29%) and white (22%) students, they lag behind in receiving financial aid, according to the Postsecondary National Policy Institute

Martinez’s ultimate goal is for the documentary to be screened at the White House to bring awareness to first-generation students like herself and the students featured in the documentary.

“I think the work of making college more accessible and affordable can be done at the national level, meaning legislation can be put into place to help first-gen students,” Martinez says. “I also feel that it starts with the institutions, with colleges, with universities, recognizing those challenges and how they can work with getting students into the colleges and then keeping them.”

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