In her words: I have always known that education was my key out of poverty. It was pretty obvious to me from a young age, even though I was raised by a single mother who did not complete the 8th grade. But somehow, I just knew that education was the way for me to obtain the “American Dream.” I didn’t graduate from high school. For health reasons, I didn’t finish. But as soon as I got better I took my GED, and I applied to college. I got into Hunter in 1992. But life happened, and I couldn’t continue. In 1994 I stopped. I had a son a few years later, and then wound up in prison when my son was just a toddler. However, when I came home, I was very determined to stay out of prison. I did not want to be a statistic. I wanted to get an education. But, I thought to myself, ‘why apply?’ They are just going to reject me. I felt like the goal I set to show my son—that it was worth trying—was unrealistic…so I stopped my application. Fortunately, I had shared what I was doing with my friends who insisted that I finish the application.
Leyla Martinez is about to graduate with a Bachelor’s in Human Rights from Columbia University. She successfully completed the Justice in Education Fellowship and was selected to be a Women’s Forum Education Fund Fellow. She is also the Program Coordinator for the Beyond the Bars Fellowship, where students and community members are offered the opportunity to develop a deeper understanding of mass incarceration. Ms. Martinez’ journey has been long and there have been a few bumps on the road. Nonetheless, she has not given up and is determined to continue pursuing a higher education. Her hopes are that her education and experiences will properly prepare her to make changes to current policies in place that hinder the possibilities of the underrepresented.