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Spotlight on Commerce: Catalina Martinez, Regional Program Manager, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

Growing up in a hardworking, traditional Cuban family of little means, I was pulled out of school often as a child to help care for my sick grandmother and to work to help the family in other ways. My grandparents believed that girls didn’t need an education, and that only boys should go to school.

Thankfully, I grew up in a very diverse community, so I knew there was more out there for girls than what I could see within my own family. At 16, I dropped out of high school, moved into my own apartment, was completely self-supporting, and began to partially support my mother, which became a lifelong commitment.

Working several low-wage jobs at a time, I was driven by the need to increase my earning potential, and I knew I had to educate myself to do that. I began to study and get better jobs, and through chipping away at my education, one course at a time for many years, I completed my undergraduate degree at the age of 30. I continued to study until I was satisfied, and today I have three graduate degrees. I was always determined to get an education of my choosing and not let my circumstances and family dictate that for me.

Overcoming significant adversity to find success left me with particular challenges, but it also led to incredible "super powers," such as viewing obstacles as detours instead of barriers; knowing the importance of surrounding myself with amazing people while championing others; having high levels of emotional intelligence and cultural competency; being a courageous problem solver with unconventional ideas; and having an intense drive to kick doors open for others, despite the consequences.

A wise young woman once said to me, “It’s not what’s on you; it’s what’s in you,” and I live by this mantra every day.

Ed. note: This post is part of the very first Spotlight on Commerce series highlighting the contributions of the Department of Commerce employees who are First Generation Professionals. First Generation Professionals are one of the first in their immediate families to enter the professional work environment. They are professionals with varying socio-economic backgrounds, life experiences, skills and talents that diversify our workforce.