Vanderbilt alumna awarded prestigious 2020 Rhodes Scholarship

Sarena Martinez
Sarena Martinez

Sarena Martinez, a 2016 graduate who majored in psychology and minored in French, was recently selected as a 2020 recipient of the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship.

Martinez is one of only 32 scholars selected from almost 1,000 applicants from across the United States. The Rhodes Trust provides scholars with financial support to pursue a degree of their choice at Oxford University. Established in 1902, the Rhodes Scholarship is the oldest and most celebrated international fellowship award in the world. “My fingers haven’t stopped tingling with gratitude and excitement,” Martinez said of learning of her award.

Martinez is the 27th Rhodes Scholar from Vanderbilt University, and Vanderbilt’s first woman of color to obtain the honor. She is the first Vanderbilt Rhodes Scholar to be named since 1998 and one of three finalists from Vanderbilt to be invited to interview for the Rhodes this year.

Originally from Oak Brook, Illinois, Martinez sought to challenge herself from a young age. She enrolled in Bard College at Simon’s Rock when she was 16 years old, later transferring to Vanderbilt University her junior year. She quickly became involved in her new community, serving as a Transfer Student Orientation Leader, joining both Kappa Alpha Theta and Psi Chi, and founding a Vanderbilt Chapter of Active Minds, an organization that raises awareness and education about mental health.

She continued to keep busy after graduation, first conducting research at the Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt with Lynn Walker, professor of pediatrics, psychology and psychiatry and behavioral sciences, studying pediatric functional abdominal pain. She was then selected as a Venture for America Fellow and moved to Birmingham, Alabama, to spur economic opportunity through entrepreneurship. She began by working with Innovate Birmingham, which wove together more than 15 community partners and over 25 employers to connect youth to jobs while offering wraparound services like transportation and child care, mentorship and two-year and four-year scholarships. She then transitioned to the City of Birmingham to help launch the Department of Innovation and Economic Opportunity in March 2018, which exists to create an inclusive economy in Birmingham.

“Bearing witness to the struggle for economic opportunity throughout my life and in Birmingham has given way to finding my purpose: helping post-industrial cities—and the people in them—transition into a knowledge-based economy,” Martinez said. “For America to be a place where each resident can flourish, we must transform our economic development philosophy to recognize that job creation, job preparation and job access are inextricably linked, and they are the foundational dimensions of America’s competitiveness in today’s dynamic, interdependent world.”

At Oxford, Martinez will pursue a master’s in public policy. “I want to understand how to help post-industrial cities usher in the knowledge-based economy inclusively,” she said. “I’m interested in studying how to increase the technical capacity of local governments to create prosperity for their residents when housed in progressive cities in conservative states.”

One of the other benefits of the Rhodes Scholarship is the cohort of current scholars and network of accomplished alumni that new recipients join. This is one aspect of the program that Martinez is looking forward to most. “I cannot wait to meet my fellow cohort. I believe innovation is a social activity, and I can’t wait to be surrounded by people and faculty that are gripped by questions—the pursuit of which will yield a more hopeful future for our world,” she said.

Martinez acknowledged that her achievements are the culmination of her hard work and the support of others. She credits her mother, a first-generation Hispanic-American woman who overcame significant hardship and discrimination, for her setting her on the path to success.

“Because of her investment in, and commitment to, an educational system that empowered me and nurtured my voracious curiosity, I received scholarships to Simon’s Rock and Vanderbilt that encouraged me to ‘live the questions.’ I owe everything to my mom, brother and sister,” Martinez said.

She also expressed appreciation for the network of supporters she has worked with over the past few years. “I am so grateful to all of the amazing faculty at Vanderbilt that have invested in me and helped shape me: Dr. Craig Smith, Dr. Jo-Anne Bachorowski and Dr. Lynn Walker, especially,” Martinez said. “During the process, the Career Center—Jackie Sheridan and Dr. Kate Brooks—were so helpful. I was encouraged to apply by my mentor, Josh Carpenter, who has been one of the most transformative influences in my life to date. None of this would be possible without him.”

Martinez applied for the Rhodes Scholarship and made it to the finalist round last year. She said she felt the experience made her a more competitive candidate this year. “My purpose was more crystallized, and I was gripped by more urgency,” she said. “I had a whole year to deepen my convictions, refine my questions and meet people who inform and inspire my work.”

Martinez offered the following advice for future applicants: “Dive into your why and formulate a how. Reconnect with old professors that you have always admired. Re-read works that have shaped your undergraduate experience, and draw new meaning from them. Examine the constellation of influences that have made you who you are today. And apply! I laughed this application off the first time that someone even brought up the possibility of me applying.”

Martinez’s nominations were supported by the Career Center, which supports current undergraduates and recent Vanderbilt University alumni. Those interested in applying to the Rhodes Scholarship or other competitive fellowships should contact Jackie Sheridan, associate director of Post-Baccalaureate Opportunities.