Where can a graduate degree from the University of Illinois take you? In this series, we catch up with one recent Graduate College alum and ask the question: “Where are they now?”.
Shantel Martinez graduated from the University of Illinois with a PhD in Communications & Media from the Institute of Communications Research in 2016 after earning an EdM in Educational Policy Studies in 2011. She currently works as the Assistant Director of the Otter Cross Cultural Center at California State University, Monterey Bay where she oversees the daily operations of the center.
Could you describe what you do in your position at the Otter Cross Cultural Center?
In my position, I oversee the Otter Cross Cultural Center, which includes supervising two full-time coordinators and seven student assistants. I manage our budget, develop program curriculum, build bridges with faculty and off-campus community leaders, participate with various campus and community committees that foster belongingness and social justice, develop relationships with alumni and current students, oversee grant applications, and much more. In my spare time I still publish and present at conferences. I feel like I get to straddle both Academic and Student Affairs due to my background and experiences.
You worked as a graduate assistant at both La Casa Cultural Latina and the Women’s Resource Center. What did you get out of these experiences? Any memorable or impactful stories you might be willing to share?
I truly enjoyed my time at both La Casa Cultural Latina and the Women’s Resource Center (WRC)! I absolutely loved working with the professional staff and learned so much from these positions. The ability to sit on committees, coordinate events and graduations, learn to strategically manage budgets, and foster relationships with off-campus organizations directly impacts my work to this day.
I have so many positive memories from these positions, but one that always sticks out is working on the Feminist Film Festival and partnering with the Art Theatre to show the films there. While it was a struggle to get the University on board, the reward of partnering with the community and downtown Champaign was more than I originally thought it would be. Now the program is over eight years old and I feel so proud knowing that I helped start this event with the WRC.
What was the transition from graduate school to a professional career like for you? Were there any surprises?
For me, there were not too many surprises due to my experiences working in the Office of Inclusion and Intercultural Relations at Illinois as well as observing the politics that occur in Academic Affairs. Nevertheless, what was most surprising was encountering how other campuses approach issues surrounding belongingness (which is also my research focus), social justice, retention of marginalized students, and collaborating with off-campus communities.
Being an Ethnic Studies/Communication scholar and working in Student Affairs marks me as different, which is a great thing for multiple reasons: as an intersectional and interdisciplinary scholar, I view an issue from multiple perspectives before making a judgement call or identifying a solution; I build meaningful and authentic relationships with faculty due to my training and ability to empathize with their stressors; and I put into practice my research/ theoretical frameworks and get to see immediate change. Again, I attribute these skills to my time at Illinois, where I developed experiences in both student/academic affairs and took the time to explore different career options and forge my own path.
What are some of your main responsibilities, and what does a normal day or week look like for you? Are there any skills/competencies that are particularly crucial to your work?
One thing that I love the most about my position is that no day is the same. There are days where I am in back-to-back meetings all day, or others where I am working from a café doing strategic planning. And then there are days where we have impromptu dance/listening parties in the Center, I laugh non-stop with students, or help them in crisis. It truly is dynamic work. However, what is most needed to be successful in this position is the ability to build bridges and authentic relationships with others (students, faculty, administrators, alumni, community members), have experience with strategic planning, the ability to translate theory and put it into practice, build curriculum, as well as the confidence to stand up for social justice.
While, the PhD allows me a seat at the table, it is my vast and varied experiences and ability to actively and empathetically listen to others’ needs that make me successful. Also, just because you have a PhD does not mean that you can automatically do this work—when I was interviewing people for coordinator positions in the Center, there were people who had PhDs but had no experience working beyond research or the classroom. Make sure that you can translate what you are doing for multiple audiences.
What is the most interesting, rewarding, and/or challenging aspect of your job?
There are so many things that I love about my position - one thing that I am most excited about is putting my research and theoretical framework into practice. From this, I get to take my research in new directions. I also love mentoring students and seeing them develop into scholars and professionals. That ability to plant a seed and see it grow is something that never gets old.
What is one piece of advice you would give to graduate students at Illinois?
Don’t put all your eggs into one basket. Diversify your experience and make it what you want it to be, even if you feel like you might be letting down or disappointing your mentors. At the end of the day, this is your life and you need to do what makes you happy, not what makes others happy.
This interview was conducted by Mike Firmand, Assistant Director for Employer Outreach in the Graduate College. He works with employers to connect University of Illinois graduate students to new opportunities and promote the value of graduate education. He previously worked for the College of Business at Illinois State University and has held positions in insurance, marketing, banking, and retail and event management. Mike holds a B.S. in Recreation, Sport and Tourism from the University of Illinois and an M.S. in Communication from Illinois State University.