Inclusive Leaders Lift as they Climb

Elizabeth Martinez-Podolsky believes you need to give of yourself to learn about others.

She does a lot of giving in her role as the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences multicultural liaison officer (MLO).

“We work to create an inclusive environment for students of all backgrounds who desire a quality education and an active student life. As the MLO, I work with students to help them make connections from their learning to their professional development,” Martinez- Podolsky says. “As our university and workforce begins to see a change in the demographic of engaged citizens, we must work towards making space to accommodate and normalize different ways of thinking and learning.”

Martinez-Podolsky joined the college in April of 2015. She is using student survey data and input from current students to develop ideas to improve diversity and multicultural programs and create future initiatives.

On a recent day Martinez-Podolsky spoke with the Iowa State University Extension and Outreach Regional Food Working Group on how to reach out to disenfranchised communities. She wrote a letter of recommendation for a student, drafted a weekly student newsletter and sourced funding for a professional development conference. There are no typical days for Martinez-Podolsky, but one theme drives her work.

“I promote an asset based mentality. I want to move our students away from focusing on deficits and instead use asset based language. I help students define and identify their skills – their cultural capital and wealth,” she says. “They have so much to offer and don’t know how to give themselves credit.”

This theme is ingrained into the language of Martinez-Podolsky’s program. To encourage students to think like academics she refers to them as “CALS Scholars” in her weekly student news- letter, Hello from MLO.

CALS students are introduced to Martinez-Podolsky at orientation and she speaks to each major’s introductory course. Students who self-identify as multicultural in their application materials receive information from her and others opt in as they become familiar with Martinez- Podolsky and the services she offers.

“I will serve any student. I’m here for those that identify as multicultural— Latino, Black, Asian Pacific Islander and others—and for those who are early parents, nontraditional students, veterans or members of the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual) community. Anyone who may feel disenfranchised,” she says.

Martinez-Podolsky hails from South Texas and identifies as Xicana (a female Mexican-American). She draws heavily upon her own personal experiences to connect with and serve students.

“Iowa was my first introduction to my brownness,” Martinez-Podolsky says. “But being here helped me heal and find my connection to agriculture and my blood line. Corn is sacred to my cultural background.”

A first generation college graduate, Martinez-Podolsky defied cultural expectations. Her parents were born in Mexico and college was not what they had in mind for their daughter—especially in the Midwest.

She earned her bachelor’s degree in cultural anthropology from the University of Texas at San Antonio and a master’s degree in educational policy and leadership studies from the University of Iowa.

“I had never visited Iowa before I applied for graduate school, but I wanted a challenge. I hadn’t really been a minority before like I am here. After my interview I thought it might be too much of a challenge,” Martinez-Podolsky jokes.

She met her husband as a graduate student and together they have made Iowa their home. Prior to joining CALS she worked as a hall director at Iowa State University and has previous experience in multicultural pre-collegiate programs through her work at the University of Iowa and Iowa State.

“I really love this institution. The physical layout and space—it is a healing place to be around such large trees with the changing colors. And I love the challenge to provide evidence on research to direct the vision for my work,” she says.

Her vision is already making an impact.

Alex Mitchell, a freshman in agricultural biochemistry from Arkansas, meets with Martinez-Podolsky weekly.

“I always feel so motivated after I meet with Elizabeth,” he says. “She helps keep me focused and helps me hone in on what I need to do to stay on track.”

Mitchell participated in the college’s George Washington Carver Summer Research Internship program as a high school sophomore and is serving as a student mentor for the program this summer. He’s also a member of the Minorities in Agriculture, Natural Resources and Related Sciences (MANNRS) club, which Martinez-Podolsky co-advises with CALS assistant dean of diversity Theressa Cooper.

Martinez-Podolsky also coordinates the college’s Academic Program for EXcellence (APEX) – an eight-week academic summer program designed to help multicultural students transition to Iowa State.

Her favorite advice to students is— “lift up as you climb.”

“As a community-of-color or underrepresented populations, we have a responsibility to ourselves, others and our ancestors to remember to help others. We are given a precious opportunity to learn at an institution of higher education and this alone will present many opportunities to be successful. We must remember our communities as we progress,” Martinez-Podolsky says.