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News Release

June 3, 2020

Physics Student Finds Path at College

If Leonardo Martinez were to trace his journey from graduating from Saugus High School to his College of the Canyons graduation on June 5, the line would be anything but linear.

Martinez, who is transferring to USC in the fall, spent his first year at COC feeling aimless about his goals.

“I was definitely going to school with no real motivation,” said the 23-year-old. “I didn’t have a clear cut path. I was trying to work full-time and go to school, so school wasn’t a priority at the time.”

But Martinez was motivated to take his education more seriously when he realized he could help bring about change and solve some of the world’s biggest problems.

“It was great to see the context of my life in the grand scheme of things,” said Martinez. “The way I see it, if my life is going to be short, I might as well burn as brightly as possible while I’m here.”

After changing his major three times, Martinez finally settled on double majoring in physics and electrical engineering when he realized nuclear fusion research could help improve standards of living worldwide.

“I believe we need an infinite source of clean energy to fuel the world’s ever-growing population,” said Martinez. “Fusion energy seems like one the most imperative technologies that we need to work on. Realizing that is when my college career started.”

The first-generation Latino student found the support he needed from the college’s Mathematics, Engineering and Science Achievement (MESA) program, which works to provide financially disadvantaged and historically underrepresented students with a variety of services including academic advisement, tutoring services, and networking opportunities.

“I would say 50 percent of my success at COC was from MESA,” said Martinez, who served as vice president of MESA’s Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers chapter. “It helped me be in an environment where I could only better myself, exchange a lot of different ideas and be challenged. The people I was with in MESA are the people who are going to change the world.”

Martinez also credits COC Professor David Martinez with pointing him in the right direction and giving him career advice.

“He left a positive impact on me,” said Martinez. “He really prepares you for university and industry life. A lot of people complain that he’s too hard and not to take his class, but I think it should be the opposite—take his class because it is hard and it will challenge you.”

Martinez, who is chair of the college’s physics and engineering department, recalled Martinez’s extreme dedication to his studies and how he didn’t take himself too seriously.

“Leonardo was a pleasure to teach and brought a whimsical sense of humor into the classroom and into the conversations I have had with him,” said Martinez. “Getting to know him, I am impressed with the not so linear path he has taken to become the engineering transfer student on his way to USC that he is today.”

Martinez recently toured USC with his two biggest supporters, his mother and little sister, who also attends COC.

“They are excited and in awe,” said Martinez. “They were really proud of me. It made my mom realize, ‘Whoa, this is serious. You’re not transferring to just another school, you are transferring to the school.”

Martinez, who was also accepted to UCLA, UC Irvine and UC San Diego, chose USC because of its small class sizes and large research budget.

“It’s nice to know that a reputable institution like USC is willing to back someone like me,” said Martinez. “I know I’m a worthy student, I just got a late start on life.”

As eager as he is to transfer to USC, Martinez is also looking forward to giving back to the school where his journey began.

“COC gave me a path by giving me structure,” said Martinez. “It provided me with strong network and a lot of opportunities and support. COC has been great to me.”

As for his plans for the future, Martinez hopes to contribute to the creation of future rocket technology at NASA or Spacex or to get a job working for ITER, an experimental nuclear fusion reactor in France.