Yhanira Adán Martinez got her letter of acceptance from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) while hanging laundry with her mother during her high school senior year in Eagle Pass, Texas.

“I remember the first word was, ‘Congratulations,’” Martinez recalled. “Then my mother said to me, ‘But you’re not going to go, right mija?’”

As luck would have it for the youngest of eight siblings, her father had attended a college information session nearly 500 miles away in El Paso. It was entirely in Spanish and attendees learned about the value of a college education and the scholarship money available to help pay for it.

“That session equipped my dad with the information he needed to convince my mother I needed to go,” Martinez recalled. So, at 18, she was on her way 2,000 miles east to Cambridge, Mass., to attend college — a first for her family.

Martinez is now giving other high school seniors that same opportunity through her Proyecto Ayuda Scholarship Fund. She launched it in 2019 with Café College. Since then, nearly 100 students have received more than $80,000 in scholarships – most of the funds coming from Martinez, her family and friends. 

“We were a very low-income family, and my parents have a sixth-grade education,” Martinez shared, her voice slightly cracking. “They always worked laborer jobs. We never saw ourselves as poor. We were rich in love, values, integrity and work ethic. We didn’t know what we didn’t have.”

Her five older siblings were migrant workers, and the family would travel for the harvests. They stopped moving around once she and her two younger siblings started school. It allowed them opportunities to join clubs, participate in extracurricular activities, and take part in math and writing competitions. 

Martinez also became great at math and science, a talent which helped her earn a scholarship covering 90 percent of her tuition and fees to MIT.

In college, she frequently volunteered her time to help fellow Latinos, whom she said were at a disadvantage when it came for preparing for college. “I couldn’t help with money, but I could help with time,” Martinez recalled.

That sense of altruism continued when she moved to San Antonio in 2007. Martinez helped Spanish-speaking families see the value of college and assisted them with scholarship applications. 

She eventually met with the director of Café College and offered to translate the organization’s information to Spanish and host information sessions for native Spanish speakers. In September 2019, she led an information session at Edison High School and sat her parents in the front row so they could see for themselves how their support for her turned into a case of paying it forward as she helped others.

That commitment to helping fellow Hispanic students attain a college education led the San Antonio Business Journal to present Martinez with a 2023 Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Award. 

She continues to lead information sessions for Café College, but as of 2022, the Proyecto Ayuda Scholarship she started has moved to the San Antonio Area Foundation. Applicants must come from Spanish-speaking households and demonstrate financial need. They must also write an essay about how they plan to use their education to benefit the community.

Ana Rodriguez received a $1,000 Proyecto Ayuda scholarship in 2023 and is studying biology at the University of Texas at Austin. She is a member of the Dean Scholars Program in the College of Natural Sciences and plans to use her education to focus on agriculture, nutrition and community health.

“This scholarship means a lot to me,” Rodriguez effused. “It’s such a big help to pursuing my education. I really value it and my experience has been great, and I have been very focused on my studies. I look forward to being an important contributor to my community.”

That’s what Martinez said she hopes for when awarding these scholarships – help foster the spirit of paying it forward and giving back to the community.

 “I want to inspire them to do what I do when the thought comes into my mind to help,” she said. “It’s the following through and acting where most people fall short. Then you miss the opportunity to help. I want people to take those opportunities to help.”

The San Antonio Area Foundation recognizes Yhanira Adán Martinez as a generous and thoughtful donor as part of our 2023 Hispanic Heritage Month coverage. 

Do you know someone who may also be interested in giving back by opening an Area Foundation scholarship fund? It’s easier than you may think! Click here to find out more about our scholarships programs or reach out to Jennifer Ballesteros, Executive Director, Scholarship & Relief Programs, at jballesteros@saafdn.org or 210-775-6295.

Sean M. Wood is a contributor to the San Antonio Area Foundation Marketing & Communications Department’s Storytelling Ambassador network.