Graduating From Carl Sandburg College Just the Latest Step for Michael Martinez

  Aaron Frey
  Monday, June 29, 2020 2:32 PM
  Campus News

Galesburg, IL

Michael Martinez had planned to walk across the stage in May as a Carl Sandburg College graduate.

But even though the COVID-19 pandemic led to the cancellation of Sandburg’s in-person commencement, he was determined not to let that stop him from having the moment he’d dreamed of. Overcoming obstacles is nothing new for Martinez, who was born with a condition called spina bifida in which the spine and spinal cord don’t form properly. It prevented him from being able to walk on his own — until this spring.

Martinez, wearing his navy blue cap and gown and with the support of braces and a walker, walked through his living room and received his diploma from his fiancée, Kendra Stanley, who then moved Martinez’s tassel from right to left. A video Martinez shared of his walk has gotten tens of thousands of views on social media.

“Right after I got done, I started crying because I had finally reached my goal,” said Martinez, who will be part of a virtual celebration of Sandburg’s 2019-20 graduates at 3 p.m. Tuesday on the College’s Facebook page. “I was super nervous to do it, but then I got done and was super proud. It was incredible.”

Martinez had been going to rehabilitation appointments to prepare him for his walk across the stage, but a surgery and bout with pneumonia in February temporarily slowed his progress. A few weeks later, the spread of COVID-19 forced the postponement of his rehab sessions. He spent the months since then rehabbing on his own, privately preparing for the moment he’d been working so hard for — even if he had to do it in his house instead of in front of his peers.

“It was one thing after another,” Martinez said. “I had my doubts, for sure, but at the same time it also made me a lot more determined. This is a perfect chance to inspire people to say, ‘I have all these hurdles and all these things that have come up, but I can still do it.’”

Martinez initially went to Sandburg after graduating from Galesburg High School in 2010, but he dropped out after one semester.

“I had taken four classes, and I got A's in three of them. But I had an F in the other one, and to me, that stood out,” Martinez said. “I was focused on that one, and so a week later I dropped out.”

When Martinez came back to Sandburg in 2017, he did so with a different mindset, saying he wanted it to “make it feel like home.” He became a student ambassador; was an officer in Men of Distinction and the Hispanic-Latino Student Association; and was involved in Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society, TRIO Student Support Services and the Criminal Justice Club. He also helped organize the College’s first wheelchair basketball event.

“I've had so much love and support from Sandburg from the second I got there,” Martinez said. “Growing up, I never really was included in stuff, so to feel the love and how included I was at Sandburg really helped me.”

Martinez will officially graduate from Sandburg this summer with his Associate in Arts. He’ll attend Knox College this fall and plans to major in psychology. He’s already learned plenty about himself.

“I realized I'm stronger than I gave myself credit for,” Martinez said. “I doubt myself a lot, especially before I went to college. But I realized that if I put my mind to it, I can do it.”

Michael Martinez wheelchair basketball

Carl Sandburg College student Michael Martinez plays during Sandburg’s inaugural wheelchair basketball event in March 2019 in John M. Lewis Gymnasium. Martinez, who was born with spina bifida and uses a wheelchair, helped arrange the event.

Press Contact

Aaron Frey