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Renata Gomes Martins' Journey Passes Through USF, Brazil, Prague and Nairobi ... And That's Just This Year

By Keith Morelli

Renata Gomes

TAMPA (June 28, 2019) -- Growing up, Renata Gomes Martins had food on the table, but not much else.

“My parents always worked very, very hard to give my sister and me everything we needed,” Martins said. “We never went hungry, but we never had more than what we needed. We saved every penny so that we could have a quality education and food on our table. Those were the only priorities.

“No Christmas lists, no smartphones, no vacations,” she said. “For years, we lived in a house that had one single bedroom.”

Now, the Muma College of Business senior majoring in global business and marketing, is spending part of the summer studying in Prague of the Czech Republic before heading to Nairobi, Kenya, for an internship. But that’s only the latest leg of this incredible journey, which began with a single, determined step as a teenager in an out-of-the-way South American city.

Her path passed through volleyball courts in southern Brazil and central Florida and into a job as a college student in which – in an unusual twist – she had to send money home to help her parents out; and now at USF. Here, she excels as a student, giving back to the community and focusing on where this ride takes her next.

She started out as a teenager in Curitiba, Brazil, the daughter of parents who didn’t attend college, but who encouraged her make that her goal. Being a confident young woman destined for success, she said, is thanks to her parents’ encouragement and support.

“They strived to give me the best education they could and taught me that the sky was the limit,” she said. “They made me believe I could be anything I wanted if I worked hard enough and was humble enough. The values and morals they stilled in me by example are things for which I will always be thankful.

“I am proud of my roots.”

Her family also encouraged participation in sports, so Martins began playing volleyball at the age of 8, and she was recruited to play competitively. Along the way, she was contacted by Montverde Academy in Central Florida to attend high school and play volleyball there.

“I had heard that the United States is the land of opportunity and knew that pursuing an education there could dramatically change my life for the better,” she said, “so I asked my parents if I could try to make this dream become a reality.

“They told me, ‘We’ll encourage you and support you no matter what.’ I also knew that financially, this would be a challenge for my parents. I had to be awarded 100 percent financial help to make this trip happen.”

The 15-year-old set her mind to this first big leg of her journey. She figured out the application and immigration processes and got her own passport and visa, in spite of a language barrier, and with some financial help from her parents and grandparents, bought an airplane ticket.

“When I left,” she said, “I did not even have a cell phone to tell my family I had arrived safely and we were all scared, of course, but I had to go for it.

“My first year at Montverde Academy was the most challenging year of my life,” she said. She didn’t speak English fluently and often had to ask teammates to translate between her and her coach.

“To adjust, I hung out with Americans and asked them to correct my English and to teach me new words. I did this for about 10 months and dedicated myself to learning the language in class. This was probably the best decision I’ve ever made because it taught me so many new things. I made many friends and learned the American culture very well.

“But even though I felt like I had some people around me who cared about me,” she said, “I still cried desperately on my own several times, hoping to close my eyes and wake up at home. I’ve always been very close to my family, so being away from them was heartbreaking.”

“I joined clubs and served my community through volunteer work almost every weekend,” she said. “By the end of the year, I was honored to become the Most Valuable Player at volleyball and the Most Outstanding Female Boarding Student. Who would have thought?”

The next step took Martins to Lake-Sumter State College, where she got a job on campus working a schedule around classes and volleyball practice. Her father had been unexpectedly laid off back in Brazil, so part of her paycheck was sent back to help support her mother and father.

“My salary as a student assistant was larger than our household income when both of my parents worked,” she said, “so my goal was to help my family.”

She graduated with an associate’s degree in 2016.

Her next step? Admission to USF, where she was awarded the Latin American & Caribbean Scholarship and a Phi Theta Kappa Scholarship.

“I fell in love with USF at first sight,” she said. “It has become my second home. The faculty and staff have become mentors whom I will never forget and my roommates and classmates have become lifelong brothers and sisters.”

In the fall, Martins will serve as president of the Global Citizens Project Student Association and help expand the Global Business Society at USF, an organization she cofounded.

“I could not be more grateful for the opportunity to study here and I am doing everything I can to make it worthwhile,” she said. “I know USF is making a huge investment in me. This is why I want to work harder and harder: to make the ROI be greater than expected.”

Martins’ plans for the future? Pursuit of an MBA and continuation of a project she initiated in Brazil.

“After I came to the United States, I finally understood the ‘why,’” she said, referring to questions she had as a teenager. “Why do we have to study? Why do we have to go to school? Why do we have to learn things that seem useless in our lives?

“I learned that the information we study can change our life situation. I learned that people have different learning styles and I learned the secret to being an A student.

“I learned that life is about relationships and that we will never be able to get anywhere by ourselves. I learned that giving back is the most important thing someone could ever do and that it’s ok if I don’t have financial resources right now.

“I can donate what I have, which is time and energy.”

That epiphany sparked the project she began in her home country and she began reaching out to Brazilian students who wonder, like she did as a teen, why learning is important.

“That is what I am doing,” she said. “I am telling people what I wish someone had told me.”

So far this summer, she’s addressed 400 Brazilian children and teenagers about her journey and the important things she has learned.

“I have been going from class to class, student to student, athlete to athlete, because I believe in a generation that appreciates the opportunity to study,” she said. “I want to help make this world better through education because I know it is possible and my life is the proof.”

So far, the journey of Renata Gomes Martins has been more than she ever expected.

“This,” she said, “has been the most amazing adventure of my life.”