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Undergrad Spotlight: Miguel Martinez


"Cambodia has a rich cultural history that has profoundly expanded my mind on subjects such as performing arts, silk, and stone." - Miguel Martinez

An Interview witn Miguel Martinez 

Interviewed by Jenna Bittenbender, SEAP New Initiatives Coordinator

JBB: Tell us a little about yourself. Where are you from? How did you come to Cornell?

MM: I’m originally from San Antonio, Texas. When it came time for me to apply for college I never really thought about an Ivy League school, or a university far from home. I am a first generation college student, so navigating applications was unchartered territory. I didn’t know what to expect. In high school I had an Upward Bound advisor that promoted me to apply to Cornell. So I did. And then I got in! My family was proud, but they had mixed feelings. Especially my mom. She was sad to see me go so far away, but at the same time really excited for the opportunities that would be available to me.

That’s how I came to be at Cornell. Since I have been here, I’ve joined several organizations and been exposed to many opportunities. I am a member of the Dream Team and the First Generation Student Union. I’m a McNair Scholar, I’ve studied abroad, I have expanded my academic interests and realized a love for research in social justice, human rights, immigration, and international affairs.

JBB: How did you hear about the Cornell in Cambodia winter session course?

MM: I had two friends who took the course last year. I wanted to apply then, but I also really wanted to go home for winter break and visit my family. My friends had such a good time and came back telling the things they learned and all about their personal experiences. I saw the course was being offered again and decided to apply, while I was studying abroad in London.

JBB: What were your most memorable activities in Cambodia?

MM: I have a few, I’ll give you a positive one: Angkor Wat. Seeing the stories and rich culture history of Cambodia being displayed in stone was beautiful. Another memorable one is also sad. We went to a Khmer Rouge prison camp. It was profoundly heartbreaking to be in that space, where so many people died and suffered. Both of these are really memorable experiences.

JBB: How did you feel engaging with Cambodian culture and people first hand? What were your expectations going into this new place? What surprised you?

MM: I went to Cambodia with an open mind. I never studied the area before. I didn’t know what to expect. Oh, seeing the tu tus, I wasn’t expecting that. The Cambodian people were really welcoming. It’s interesting, I had just finished up a semester abroad studying in London and it was really different. Londoners were more hostile and standoffish towards tourists than the Cambodians.

I feel there still existed some neo colonialism in the country. For instance, many businesses were catered towards tourists. And many were owned by non-Cambodian people. It seemed like a lot of the profit from these places wasn’t staying inside the country.

JBB: How has this course changed your academic interests or challenged your academic development?

MM: I really reflect on this a lot. I did my final project on LGBTQ rights. I went to Cambodia thinking that they had the same issues, rights, and mindset as we have in the “west.” But in Cambodia gender and sexuality are much more fluid. This challenged me to think differently of  human rights and justice, and how they apply in other countries.

JBB: How have you shared your experiences with others?

MM: I have shared my experiences with a few other departments across campus. I have shared my knowledge and stories with friends. I strongly encourage others to study abroad. I think is gives you a broader perspective of the world and challenges your existing perceptions.

JBB: Have you traveled or studied abroad before? If so where, and how do those experiences abroad compare to the CIC course?

MM: Last summer I studied in Spain and had a great experience. For the Fall 2016 semester I studied abroad in London. That was an awesome experience too. I learned a lot, but it was different. I knew the languages and both places are western European countries, so I was pretty familiar with the cultures. Cambodia was really different. I had no previous knowledge of the language and little to no knowledge of its history and culture. I learned a few words, but what I really gained from this experience is a broader perspective. I got to experience religion, culture, and art beyond the western world.

JBB: What are your future plans here at Cornell and beyond?

MM: I definitely plan to get a PhD. I am not sure in what yet, but my interests are in immigration, international affairs, and working alongside marginalized communities. I really want to work directly with these communities to address their needs.

I don’t want to go into these communities including my very own with a white savior mentality, rather I must use my knowledge and skills to work as a collective with community members to address the challenges they are facing. I want to give back through my knowledge and skills. I want to make this place better than when I found it. I want to make people smile, even if it’s only one person. If I can do that then I am happy. I don’t know exactly how yet, but that is my goal.