Gabriel Martinez knows a thing or two about big families.
The 22-year-old University of Arizona senior is the youngest of five siblings and is an uncle to eight nieces and nephews. He's also the youngest of 30 first cousins – and that's just on his father's side; his dad is the youngest of 15 children.
Those family members have been big supporters of Martinez on his academic journey, and they will feel a special sense of pride when he graduates in May with a bachelor's degree in deaf studies from the UA College of Education.
Martinez is only the second person, and the first son, in his immediate family to earn a college degree. He and his older sister, who has a Master's in Business Administration, are the first to graduate from four-year universities.
In the fall, Martinez will go on to pursue a master's degree in higher education at the UA. He hopes to eventually work in disability resources at a university.
"I want to work with the deaf community at a mainstream school, making sure that they're getting the appropriate services that they need to succeed," Martinez said. "I'm also interested in disability resources in general and helping people with all different needs."
Growing up in the small town of Tombstone, Arizona, approximately an hour southeast of Tucson, Martinez was a shy and quiet child. He was an average student – not an academic stand-out – but he always loved school and learning. After completing high school online through Arizona Connections Academy in 2015, he enrolled at Cochise Community College. He knew he wanted to continue his education, but he was not yet sure where it would take him. That's when he stumbled upon an unexpected passion.
Martinez enrolled in an introductory American Sign Language class to satisfy a general education foreign language requirement. He'd already taken Spanish in high school and wanted to try something different.
He fell in love with sign almost immediately.
"I was fascinated with the language," he said. "I was like, 'This is where I want to go,' and I was hooked on it ever since."
After earning his associate's degree in communication from Cochise Community College, he knew he wanted to transfer to the UA. Not only was it just a few miles from his close-knit family, it also offered the only deaf studies undergraduate degree program in Arizona – and a well-respected one, at that.
His first day as a junior at the UA was exciting but overwhelming. With more than 44,000 students and 15,000-plus employees on campus, the university population surpassed that of Sierra Vista in southern Arizona, where Martinez had most recently lived with his parents.
Yet Martinez found some comfort on his first day of classes when an instructor in an educational psychology class asked students to raise their hands by major. When "deaf studies" was mentioned, Martinez looked around the room and saw 10 other hands go up. He knew at that moment he'd found his second family.
"I felt very relieved. I thought, 'Wow, I'm not alone,'" he said.
Since then, Martinez has come into his own, immersing himself in his studies and also coming out of his shell socially, he says.
In addition to his regular classes, Martinez tutors UA student-athletes in sign language and writing through Arizona Athletics' C.A.T.S. Academics program. He also serves as a preceptor for a fourth-semester American Sign Language course, assisting College of Education associate professor of practice Cindy Volk.
"Gabriel is the kind of student all professors love to have in class," Volk said. "He is inquisitive, professional and responsible. His level of commitment to the field of deaf studies is evident inside and outside of the classroom."
As a student in the Honors College, Martinez wrote his senior thesis on cochlear implants – electronic medical devices that are surgically implanted in the ear of some deaf patients. He also has an internship at Tucson's Arizona State School for the Deaf and Blind, where he works with the school's residential K-12 deaf students after class, helping them with homework and other activities.
"In the internship, I've gotten more experience with sign language and become more immersed in deaf culture," Martinez said. "It's a collectivist culture – everyone is there for each other, everybody has each other's back and everybody seems to be like a family. It's very community oriented."
Outside of schoolwork, Martinez has a passion for community service and participated the past two years in the Honors Alternative Spring Break program, offered through the Honors College. He and 10 other UA students traveled to Los Angeles in 2018 and 2019, with Martinez leading the most recent trip in March. They worked with organizations focused on homelessness, food insecurity and gang rehabilitation, particularly in the downtown Skid Row area.
"I didn't want to spend spring break at home doing nothing, and I've always had a passion for community service, so I thought it would be a good opportunity," Martinez said. "It was very rewarding. My perspectives have definitely changed from those experiences."
When he's not busy with school, work or volunteering, Martinez enjoys exercising at the Student Recreation Center and walking his four-legged friend Manny, a toy fox terrier-chihuahua mix.
Martinez says his time at the UA – and especially the support of his teachers and academic advisers – has left him feeling well-prepared for life after graduation.
He says he's glad he stepped out of his comfort zone to pursue a degree, and he's appreciative of his family for always being supportive.
"They've always said to go for it," he said. "They've just wanted me to follow what I thought was the best, which was going to college."