The Martina Leach who was a freshman at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga four years ago is not the same Martina Leach who will graduate on Saturday, May 6.
“I don’t know if this would make sense, but I saw personal growth in myself. I just feel like who I was coming into this is not the same person who’s leaving from here,” said Leach, who will earn a bachelor’s degree in biology.
“Yes, I’ll have a degree and everything, and I’ve made connections, but I feel like I’ve gained more ambitions for the rest of my life.”
The youngest of three sisters, Leach is the first in her family to attend college. With no sibling to tell her what to expect, Leach was feeling an emotion familiar to almost all students when her first day at UTC was looming.
“I was definitely nervous,” she recalled. “I was nervous in my classes. About waking up on time. If I was going to get my books because I didn’t even know that we actually had to go to a bookstore and buy our textbooks.”
Leach, who graduated from Oakland High School in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, said being the first in her family to go to college was always on her mind.
“This journey was something that no one in my family has done. It motivates me to keep going after this,” she said.
Leach toured several college campuses in Tennessee before choosing UTC.
The beauty of the campus immediately grabbed her, but the summer Moc Up program, which gives incoming freshmen a smooth transition to college life, was the major factor in her decision to enroll.
“It just really helped me prepare for that first day,” she said. “Already knowing people who I met in the summer helped even better because none of my friends from high school were coming here.”
With a bachelor’s degree in hand, she plans to take a year off and then pursue a master’s degree in environmental science, an interest that grew during her time at UTC.
In her junior year, she was part of the Urban Greenspace Research Collaborative, a partnership between researchers from UTC and Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. The project was headed by UC Foundation Assistant Professor DeAnna Beasley.
On a bike with weather sensors attached, Leach regularly rode from Holt Hall to M.L. King Boulevard along urban greenways on campus, gathering data on microclimates and testing different types of sensing equipment.
“It took me through the whole process, from learning about grants and proposals to actually collecting field data and having the opportunity to write up my own. It was a great experience,” Leach said.
Whatever direction she chooses in life, her time at UTC has prepared her, she said.
“The whole college experience was just stepping out of my comfort zone and what I’ve known. ‘Independence’ is a good word. Just learning, growing in who you are, trying to balance school, work, social life, and being out on your own.
“Through this whole college experience, I’ve blossomed, become someone I didn’t even know I would be.”