Janet Arias-Martinez, ’04, describes herself as a Jersey girl with Colombian roots.
Growing up in Paterson, New Jersey, a suburb of New York City, she knew little about Indiana and even less about Ball State. But at 18, when she opened a letter offering a full-ride scholarship along with room and board, the university 670 miles away from home suddenly became real.
“That was like Christmas in an envelope,” Arias-Martinez said. “Why would they send this to me? Was this a mistake? My parents thought we had won the lottery.”
Her superior PSAT score had caught the attention of Ball State admissions officers recruiting in the New Jersey area. That academic prowess, paired with Arias-Martinez’s Colombian heritage, positioned her as a National Hispanic Scholar at Ball State.
Arias-Martinez smiles recalling reactions at her high school to her scholarship letter. “They were excited about everything but for some reason, when they saw I was being offered a color printer … that was the cherry on top.”
With the promise of an education, color printer and all, she set off to Ball State.
Once here, Arias-Martinez ambitiously chose to double major in history and Spanish, minor in sociology and enroll in the Honors College. The academic load was demanding, but offered a rich tapestry of humanities coursework.
Following her junior year in summer 2003, she had a life-changing internship on Capitol Hill as a congressional intern with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute (CHCI). At the time, she had no idea she’d land a career with the same institute years later.
Impacting lives for the better
Today Arias-Martinez works in the heart of Washington D.C.’s business district, known as the Golden Triangle. Promoted twice since January, she’s the current director of community engagement for CHCI, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to developing the next generation of Latino leaders.
“What energizes me is doing work that’s mission-based,” she said. “With the skills I have, I want to do something that impacts someone’s life for the better.”
Able Alves was one of Arias-Martinez’s history professors at Ball State. In March, he invited her back to campus to speak to humanities students about her service-oriented career.
“Janet is both a scholar and a community-oriented individual,” said Alves, chair of the Department of History. “She shows that your work should be something you can get up and do because you’re committed to the service it provides others.”
Despite the miles that exist again between her and her alma mater, Arias-Martinez stays in touch by serving on alumni advisory boards with both the history and modern language departments. During her recent two-day visit to campus, she spoke to multiple groups of students.
The Career Center and Department of History invited her to participate in a lecture hall Q&A, where around 50 students listened to her discuss career paths for those majoring in the humanities.
Eilis Wasserman, an assistant director in the Career Center, said, “Students loved hearing Janet emphasize the importance of serendipity in one’s career journey. She wanted them to understand being curious and leveraging relationships with mentors can help them better navigate the professional realm.”
‘I had one shot … and I had to take it’
Attending Ball State pushed Arias-Martinez out of her comfort zone. Her hometown, Paterson, is filled with high-rises and a diverse population of 150,000 people, more than 50 percent of whom are Latino.
Culture-shock set in her first semester in Muncie. “I came to Indiana where it felt like I was the one Colombian on campus. I looked for others but didn’t find them,” she said with a laugh.
A first-generation college student, she was determined to stick it out. “I had one shot … and I had to take it. I wasn’t going to waste it because I was homesick.”
The university’s first-year experience program helped ease her high school-to-college transition, as did joining Gamma Phi Omega International Sorority, a Latina-oriented sorority, and the Latino Student Union.
“My family lived 12 hours away. So, I joined every student organization I could find. I wanted to have a sense of community and I was able to find it here.”
Later, she was a multicultural student ambassador for the university’s Multicultural Center, giving campus tours to prospective and incoming diverse students.
“I learned how to navigate all sorts of social speed bumps. I was able to learn through trial and error to communicate with people different from me.”
A serendipitous internship
During her junior year, Arias-Martinez saw a flier on campus that piqued her interest. It was for a paid internship in Washington, D.C. that promised housing, airfare and a stipend. An essay and a few phone calls later, she was chosen along with 35 other Latino students to spend the summer in the nation’s capital, as part of CHCI’s exclusive Congressional Internship Program.
Placed in Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi’s office, Arias-Martinez rubbed shoulders with top legislators and influencers in public policy. “I didn’t realize the gravitas of what that moment meant at the time. But I knew I was there for a reason.”
While politics wasn’t her calling, her experience with CHCI laid the foundation for her passion for mission-based work.
Returning to campus, she wanted to spend her senior year connecting with another cause. A Virginia B. Ball Center for Creative Inquiry project provided the outlet.
One of her mentors, Chin-Sook Pak, an associate professor of Spanish, led a team of interdisciplinary students in an immersive project partnering with advocacy organizations serving Latinos just outside of Indianapolis in Hamilton County.
Traveling off campus for the class again placed Arias-Martinez in new territory.
“We were able to touch lives in a very different way,” she said of the work. “That was the catalyst, the moment when I realized, ‘Ok, this is mission-based work. This is what I need to be doing. How does this translate into a career path moving forward?”
Launched for service
Arias-Martinez’s family expected her to return to New Jersey after she graduated.
It didn’t take long for her to find a job in her home state that matched her skillset, impressing prospective employers with the courses, research, and service-learning projects she’d completed at Ball State.
For eight years Arias-Martinez worked for Salesian Sisters, a Catholic order of women religious that operates her high school alma mater, Mary Help of Christians Academy. She enjoyed the work, helping raise millions in scholarships for young women’s education. A former “club kid,” she then began raising funds for the Boys and Girls Club of Paterson and Passaic.
In her spare time, she completed a master’s in public administration from Rutgers University-Newark.
Despite a demanding schedule, she volunteered with CHCI. Before long, the institute that had offered her that dream internship recruited her to work full-time in alumni relations and community engagement.
Today, she cultivates partnerships for CHCI, while managing its alumni base of more than 3,500 members worldwide. In addition, she continues to volunteer locally with the Latin American Youth Center
Honoring history and home
With her keen love of history, Arias-Martinez can never forget her roots.
Her immigrant parents sought a better life for their family in America outside of Colombia’s Coffee Triangle, where the majority of Colombia coffee is produced.
Thanks to her Ball State scholarship, Arias-Martinez no longer has to imagine what life might have been like for them in the Coffee Triangle. She’s too busy paving her own path in D.C.’s Golden Triangle.
But her parents are grateful for their daughter’s educational opportunities and ongoing involvement with Ball State. “When they found out I was coming back to speak, they were so proud.”
Wherever her career takes her next, Arias-Martinez will carry her Colombian heritage and Ball State degree with her.
“My coursework in humanities helped sharpen critical skills I use every day. Learning about the impact of human events, big and small, fueled my drive to become more civically engaged and to do work that has a social impact.”