WOODLAND PARK, N.J. -- A Berkeley College student who grew up in poverty in Colombia will receive the Robert Maher Award at the college’s commencement this Friday at the Prudential Center in Newark.
Jeison Martinez, 23, of Dover was selected as a graduate "who has met high standards of academic excellence while overcoming personal, professional or financial obstacles," the college said.
Martinez -- who excelled as a member of Berkeley's cross-country team and Student Government Association -- was two when his family moved to the United States from Barranquilla, Colombia, seeking a better life.
That proved daunting, though: His mother often worked three jobs to try to keep the family afloat.
Sometimes, she'd send her children back to live with their father in Colombia until she was managing better financially.
“It was emotionally difficult leaving my mom,” Martinez said. “And it was difficult going back and forth.
"When I came to the U.S., I didn’t know English. When I went back to Colombia, I didn’t know Spanish. So I had to learn both languages again. Now I’m fluent in both, and I also speak some Italian.”
Martinez took up permanent U.S. residence in the fifth grade. He was naturalized last June.
Proud of both countries, he says he hopes to raise awareness about the rich traditions and beauty of Colombia, despite the negative aspects that have drawn more attention.
Martinez, who held two part-time jobs while completing an Associate’s degree in Management and a BS in Business Administration, is now pursuing an MBA in Management at Berkeley College.
He works at Piscataway-based Power Hawk Technologies selling extrication systems and spare parts, among other duties. Martinez is the only employee there who is fluent in Spanish -- making him extremely valuable.
“I really like the business I’m in, and I want to grow within the company,” he said.
Martinez credits several Berkeley professors, as well as his cross-country coach, with helping him succeed.
“At Berkeley, I developed the confidence to believe that I can accomplish anything,” he said. “My professors and advisors never let me give up – they gave me the encouragement I needed.
"My family is so proud, and I hope to be an example for others.”
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