Dec. 7, 2012
Sabrina Martinez, a San Diego native educated in New York City, hits Iowa's rural roads in 2008, selling students on a Buena Vista University education.
Sells herself in the process.
Martinez, a 2008 grad from Columbia University's School of Political Science, tackles a full load of science courses at BVU in the fall of 2010. She finishes instruction in May and now stands on the other end of recruitment, already accepted into two medical schools.
I sit with Martinez in the Estelle Siebens Science Center on BVU's lakeshore campus on Monday, Dec.3, her 26th birthday. She details a career path as improbable as finding an African elephant's skeleton in the building. Which, here, you do.
Her arrival in Storm Lake comes after her mother, Maggie Martinez, sells their home near San Diego and moves to the Buena Vista County seat, sight-unseen in 2005. The elder Martinez knows only this of Storm Lake at the time: Her late aunt lived here for years, and spoke fondly of the city.
Maggie Martinez takes courses at Buena Vista and graduates in 2009. She's now employed in social work at Buena Vista Regional Medical Center.
Her youngest daughter, one who never leaves California as a child, chooses Columbia for her undergraduate studies, in part, because of "The Big Apple." Columbia has class four days per week, leaving an extra day for thousands of big-city internships.
Martinez interns with a city council campaign and, briefly, in Mayor Michael Bloomberg's office. She accepts a full-time job raising money for a Catholic school following graduation.
Before work begins, Martinez takes a two-week break, heads west to Iowa to see Mom. Sitting near the lake, she convinces herself to call New York and break the news to her would-be employer: Thanks, but no thanks. She won't be coming back.
"Everyone here is friendly; that's the way the Midwest is," Martinez says. "I was sitting on the lake, it was beautiful out, and I began calculating in my head how many times per year I could come here."
She applies for a job at several Storm Lake businesses and can't land one. Employers tread lightly. They don't wish to hire and train an adventure-seeker who may soon bolt for greener pastures, or bigger cities.
A friend suggests she visit BVU's Admissions Department. Martinez knows only this about BVU: "My mother attended school there."
Must be enough. She gets the job and roams rural roads of 56 central and eastern Iowa counties, searching for students. A pinch-me-I'm-dreaming moment arises on a highway early one day while zipping toward the high school at tiny Montezuma, Iowa.
"I was on the freeway" -- yes, she says "freeway" -- "and this piece of farm machinery that looks like an octopus is in front of me and I have to pass it," she says. "In San Diego, you can't pass! There's usually a cement wall on the left separating you from oncoming traffic."
Martinez glances ahead, signals left and in a leap of Iowa faith, pounds the gas, zipping quickly, making her appointment. "Montezuma's Revenge" of a different sort, I suppose.
She succeeds in admissions and focuses on the very program she trumpets. BVU's science program sends students to National Institutes of Health and the Mayo Clinic. It strikes the newbie sales pro: "They are doing something special here."
A calling to medicine does more than nag. Martinez quits her job and enrolls. She lands a weekend job registering patients at Buena Vista Regional Medical Center and begins her trek to become a doctor.
Sacrifice? Plenty. Martinez doesn't qualify for financial aid as she's completed her bachelor of arts. This post-baccalaureate concentrated-class regimen is seen as something "extra."
Dr. Brian Lenzmeier, associate professor of biology in the BVU School of Science, admits alarm when his school's admissions liaison discloses her intention of returning to the school she represents.
"Then she explained it," Lenzmeier says, expressing confidence in his pupil. "She had it all planned out."
Martinez interns at Dickinson County Memorial Hospital in Spirit Lake, Iowa, via BVU's Undergraduate Rural Medicine Education and Development program, joining two fellow interns she recruited to BVU.
She earns straight-As in her return to class and makes the grade on the grueling Medical College Admission Test.
She applies to 20 medical school programs and snares interviews with 11. Two accept her; others may.
To chip at tuition costs and meet her own bottom line, Martinez keeps her weekend job at the hospital in Storm Lake while accepting a full-time position in group sales at King's Pointe Waterpark Resort on the lake's northeast shore.
She'll select a medical school and start life's next chapter come August. By 2017, this former admissions rep may toil as a resident physician.
Psychiatry and family medicine emerge as areas of interest. San Diego and New York do not. Sabrina Martinez aims to practice medicine in a region where farm implements share the "freeway" with young college recruiters.
"I'd like to practice in a rural area," she says, "a place like Storm Lake."
Note: Tim Gallagher is a 1990 graduate of Buena Vista.