Her Story: Theresa Martinez

Theresa Martinez is a phenomenal professor at the University of Utah who devotes her life to elevating her students, making a true connection with them, and helping them become the incredible people she already sees within each of them.

Theresa “had a really rough upbringing with an abusive parent who was kicked out of the house” when she was a small child. She comes from a family of twelve children raised by a single parent, and Theresa is the youngest of the siblings. Even though she and her siblings were born into straining circumstances, eleven of hers siblings earned college degrees (Theresa herself being one of two with a Ph.D.), and the only sibling without a degree devoted his life to our nation’s military. Theresa attributes her and her siblings’ great success to their mother. Their mother was “this phenomenally strong woman” who empowered them and gave them hope and faith in being who they were. She encouraged them to be the very best people they could be, and this is a level of devotion that Theresa carries into her life every day. Sadly, Theresa experienced her mother’s death when she was 23 years old, and it was the hardest thing she ever had to endure. Theresa explained that “it was touch and go there whether (she) survived (her) mother’s death.” After the death of her mother, Theresa “just didn’t feel anchored to the earth anymore and I was drifting away.” It was her first class in 1987 that helped anchor her once again. During this time, Theresa says, “It was almost like I could hear mama saying ‘Teresa, you need to start living again,’” and she slowly started to care for herself again. Her difficult childhood and heartbreaking loss have made Theresa compassionate towards people who struggle and people who suffer. She can reflect on these difficult times in her life and look at her students who are going through hardship, and she can relate. She accredits her survival during these tough experiences to her mother, her siblings, her husband, and the countless others who support her every day. Theresa knows that now her mom is looking down and is “pretty happy with (her) because (she’s) done a lot in the last 29 years that (she) can be happy with.” Theresa says “I’ve made mistakes, but the thing that I’m proud of is when I’m closest to being like (my mother).”

Theresa’s support system is one of the most important things in her life. Her siblings, mother, students, her husband, and her friends have played a major part in who she is today. Her mother wanted all of the Martinez children “to get a good education and to help people,” and Theresa feels like she has dedicated her life to “tying to do exactly that.” She explained “I am not always successful, and I have failed grandly in my past. Sometimes I will have students that will say ‘I don’t do anything, or I can’t do anything right now,’ and I tell them I have been there myself where I wasn't able to do things for myself yet, and you have to be at a place in your life where things come together.” Theresa’s support system has definitely helped her get to a place in life where things are together. She told me that she owes her life to her siblings and mother. She feels that she “lived a pretty charmed life in comparison” to them. They sheltered her when her father could have killed her. They protected her and her closest (in age) sibling, and they took the pain for them. Theresa says that it is because of them that she was able to go to school, to get a Ph.D., and to become the professor she is today. She aims to recreate the wonderful support system that her family and her husband Michael have given her for each of her classes.


When looking into what major to choose for college, Theresa “wanted to be with people who had like minds, and who cared about the things (she) cares about: racism, classism, and sexism.”She took her care for diversity, inequality, social justice, and the wellbeing of others to a degree in sociology. She wanted her life to be about the people—the peoplearound her, communities, families, music, and film. She explains that “you can’t talk about race without talking about people like Marvin Gaye and Sam Cookeand the civil rights era,” and sociology has allowed her to study all of these things. In sociology, she found her niche and she absolutely loves it. 


When Theresa finished her Ph.D., there were only two jobs available for someone in her area: Sociology at the University of Utah, and Sociology at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs. She turned down the job at Colorado and waited to hear from the U. In reflection, Theresa now admits that turning down one of only two jobs available to you without knowing whether or not the other job wants you was a move of “stupidity, hubris, faith, and maybe just a little bit of moxie.” However, she was offered the job at the University of Utah in 1989. Sociology helped her find the people that truly make her feel at home, and she has now been teaching the subject for 32 years. When she was first hired, Theresa was paid $30,000 dollars a year, and “at the time (she) thought ‘Woah that’s like a fortune!’”, but she later learned “it really isn’t.” At the time though, it felt like everything to her because she had lived below the poverty line all her life until that moment. Because of this, “one of the things (she) really hopes to do it help students who struggle. A lot of (her) students struggle to be their best selves because of financial difficulty, family problems, or other things impinging on them” like the topics she discusses in her classes: racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia. Theresa hopes to be a resource for these struggling students, and most would agree that she definitely excels at doing so.


When I interviewed Theresa’s TAs and asked them what made her such an effective professor, the answers were incredible and proved that Theresa is the type of person that everyone should strive to be. They said things like “she makes you want to learn… she is relatable, and instead of being like a professor, she is just a human being that happens to be smarter than all of us. Some professors are just intimidating, but Theresa brings compassion to her classroom, and you can really feel it when you walk in.” Another student said that “Theresa stays in your heart forever.” The passion she brings to her work and her level of care for her students makes everyone feel unique. On the first day of one of Prof. Martinez’s classes, you can be sitting in a room with two hundred kids, and Theresa will know everybody’s name even if she has never met them. “She is passionate about her work and what she believes, but she is also passionate about her students and is invested in their futures.” “She makes a classroom where every voice matters and you never leave a lecture thinking she wasn’t passionate about what she was teaching you. Every word she says is thought about and is very genuine.” “Because Theresa is so passionate and invested in what she is teaching, she makes the students get on that same level and makes it very easy to be passionate about your schoolwork. She has this way of empowering all of her students because she cares so much, and she doesn’t allow anyone to fly under the radar” because she truly has a vested interest in the futures of her students. She addresses every teaching style, she is always on (even when she is not doing something for the university), and she helps everybody she encounters become the best version of themselves. Most of her students can agree that Theresa Martinez is an incredible woman who encourages compassion and empathy above all else, and it will be a very sad day for all when she retires.


Theresa’s favorite part about her job is “definitely (her) students and (her) TAs.” She stated “TAs and students give me reasons for doing the things that I do, and I know I wouldn’t survive as long as I did without having people in my life who cared about me. That includes my family, my husband, and my dear friends, but also my students who always help me keep my chin up in tough times (and that’s happened a lot.)” She believes that students are just “these little chochis” who are the reason that she is in her profession. Most of her students are kindred spirits who care about the wellbeing of others, and whether they come from privilege or poverty, everybody has a chance to get a good grade if she has anything to say about it. She explained to me that she helps her students become people that the world can be proud of and she and her TAs “fight for the student and what’s best for the student.” After she watched all of her TA’s say these incredible things about her, she said “this story is about getting to hang out with amazing people on my part, so what’s not to love about that? My privilege is to get to do the thing that I absolutely love in the world. I will retire sometime, and I am having to think about those parts of my life. My husband doesn’t want me to wait too long (to retire) because he wants me to have parts of my life that are free, but at the same time, I think about retiring from teaching and I hope I can have one oar in the water at all times. If I can just have one little class or something, I don’t know. I just don’t like the idea of not teaching. The thought of that just makes me sad because it's the thing I love. It's the thing I love most, and I get to do it with people who are amazing.”


Theresa Martinez is a truly inspiring woman. She started life in a difficult environment, was lifted up by her mother and siblings, earned a very respectable degree, survived the loss of her favorite person in the world, and is now inspiring so many people to do good. She invests her whole life into teaching and the lives of her students, and she is a support system for those who don’t have one. She makes everyone she meets feel heard and seen, and she has left so many of her students feeling inspired. We are all very fortunate to have a person as caring, genuine, uplifting, and empathetic as Theresa on this planet, and we should all look to her as an example for how we should treat others.



Photo sources: Theresa Martinez