Shannon Carter

Maria Martinez, computer science major, has achieved many accomplishments while at CSUN, but says they could not have done it without the help of their sisters and academic mentors.

From Incarceration to Liberation

A CSUN student’s second chance at success

May 9, 2022

Maria Martinez is the 2020 recipient of the Grace Hopper Scholarship courtesy of the AnitaB.org foundation, which helps women and nonbinary people succeed in technology. (Shannon Carter)

Oppression. Uncertainty. Despair.

These are the words that Maria Martinez, 35, uses to describe the darkest days of their life.

Through resilience, determination and a strong support system, Martinez, who identifies as they/them, narrowly escaped those dark days. Next month, Martinez graduates with a degree in computer science and will soon begin their new career at Disney as a software engineer.

Nowadays, Martinez is optimistic and grateful. For the first time in life, they are happy, but that wasn’t always the case.

In 2008, Martinez became pregnant and with the support of their partner at the time, decided to have an abortion. That support soon turned to blame and Martinez’s partner ended the relationship. The guilt was too much to bear. The only solution was to mentally escape. Two years later, benumbed to their feelings, Martinez was in another bad relationship and battling a severe meth addiction.

Martinez doesn’t like to talk about it. Recalling the events strikes a raw nerve inside.

One night, Martinez’s then-partner drove the two to a firing range to steal guns. However, Martinez was oblivious to what was happening. Martinez stayed in the car the whole time — high, drunk and absent-minded.

It wasn’t until the sound of the sirens and seeing the helicopter tracking the car from above that Martinez realized what was happening. Riding along in the passenger seat that night would cost Martinez six years of their life.

While in prison, Martinez’s younger sister, a software engineer, asked her company’s human resource department a hypothetical question. Would they ever consider hiring someone with a criminal background? The answer was yes, as long as the candidate was fully qualified.

From that day forward, Martinez was determined. Their sisters enrolled them in East Los Angeles College right before paroling from Folsom Women’s Facility in early 2016. By that fall, Martinez was back in school.

“I could finally see the possibility of turning my life around so I pursued computer sciences,” Martinez said. “I didn’t like it at first, it’s a love-hate relationship to this day.”

In 2018, they transferred to CSUN and participated in various programs and scholarships that have supported their academic career.

But those first few semesters in college were challenging. Adapting to technology and learning a programming language was overwhelming. They wanted to give up.

Things didn’t turn around until Martinez was able to draw a connection between crocheting — which they taught themself while in prison — to coding, that it all began to click. Martinez said crocheting is about understanding patterns and considers it just another language.

After sending out numerous internship applications, Martinez struck big by landing a position at Disney as a platform engineering intern in the summer of 2021.

Disney extended Martinez’s internship three times before the company eventually offered them a full-time position.

“I had to teach myself a lot,” Martinez said. “But I also learned a lot from my mentors at Disney and at the Grace Hopper scholarship.”

Martinez says that it feels like a dream.

Although Martinez has defied the odds and “made it,” their mission isn’t over. The women they met in prison — the ones Martinez would eventually call family — became an inspiration to give back. These days Martinez finds joy in supporting and tutoring other former convicts in computer programming.

“I made it, but it feels better lifting others up,” Martinez said. “That’s success for me.”

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