Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto personally awarded a former UA alumna with the 2016 National Youth Prize for Academic Achievement, an award only 18 out of 22,000 applicants received.
Tania Martínez Cruz received her master’s degree in agricultural and biosystems engineering from the UA in 2012 and won the award for her dedication to higher learning and inspiration to her peers.
She attended the UA as Mexico's first indigenous grantee of the Fulbright Scholar Program after receiving her bachelor’s degree from Chapingo Autonomous University in Texcoco. The Fulbright Program provided her with a grant to attend UA.
Martínez Cruz, a native of Mexico’s indigenous village of Tamazulápam Mixes in Oaxaca, said her academic journey—which few have experienced—wasn't easy.
"There were no second chances," Martínez Cruz said. "I had to pass those exams with no doubt, wasting time or money was not permitted."
Martínez Cruz's initial plan was to become a sanitary engineer that could potentially help her community—which had no drainage system or potable water.
When she arrived at the UA she had the desire to work in agriculture and decided to switch her path, a decision which led her to meet her current adviser within the Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering program.
Martínez Cruz’s adviser, Donald Slack, a UA professor of agricultural and biosystems engineering and watershed management has been teaching at the UA since 1984 and continues to be influential in Martínez Cruz’s life.
Martínez Cruz said Slack was the best supervisor she's ever had because he never stopped her from doing anything.
"He always believed in me," Martínez Cruz said. "He was open to my ideas and proposals, he would also push me to get the best of me on my work and I loved that."
Slack described one moment early on where Martínez Cruz showed signs of being a great student.
"She was kind of a quiet easy-going girl, but she was very determined and extremely knowledgeable," Slack said.
On a project she wanted to work on, Slack first required a proposal for what would later occur.
"As part of the process that I had with graduate students I ask them to write a research proposal," Slack said. "She wrote a research proposal that I thought was worthy of a PhD dissertation."
Martínez Cruz said the difference Slack made was important in her growth academically.
"I was able to develop my capacities as an irrigation specialist," Martínez Cruz said. "It was also about learning to be highly disciplined."
Martínez Cruz’s said her time at UA led her to get a new opportunity in the Netherlands.
"All these experiences allowed me to get an internship and then a consultancy position with the International Improvement Wheat and Maize Center," Martínez Cruz said. "Here I also met my current supervisors from Wageningen University and we were able to work out a collaboration for my research in Mexico."
Martínez Cruz said that the National Youth Prize gives her even more responsibility and she hopes to contribute to Mexico's agricultural policy when she finishes her research.
She said she hopes to see a new standard in Mexico where students can have the same academic opportunities that she had.
"I wish our children can have access to education and that they can better off their lives,” Martínez Cruz said. “Still in 2016 we live in a country of social inequity and I want a more equitable society where we all have the basic services and good life quality."
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