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A year of change

8/10/2014

By DIANE GASPER-O'BRIEN

By DIANE GASPER-O'BRIEN

dobrien@dailynews.net

She says she doesn't look at her new position as a job. But Mirta Martin already is working hard in her effort to make Fort Hays State University the destination of choice.

"And I want to make that word 'the' destination of choice in caps and italics throughout the world," Martin said.

Martin was announced as the ninth president of Fort Hays State University on May 2, and she hit the ground running.

She takes over for Edward Hammond, the longest-serving president in school history at 27 years, who also was known for working at a fast pace.

After spending 32 years carving a successful career in banking and then in the education field, Martin said she was drawn to Fort Hays because of its "pioneer work ethic."

"It was the only school that had in its profile that it was looking for somebody who wanted to lead in a caring community and had a strong work ethic," she said. "That pioneer work ethic is what I'm all about."

Not only is the 53-year-old Martin the first woman president in school history, Martin is the first Hispanic president among Kansas Board of Regents schools.

An immigrant from Cuba, Martin came to America at the age of 5, escaping the Communist regime with her grandmother and younger sister while having to leave other family members behind.

She grew up working for everything she had and continued to carry that principle into her adult life.

"I've worked all my life," Martin said. "I'm not afraid of hard work. It makes us stronger."

Martin worked her way through Duke University, where she earned a bachelor's degree in 1982, then went on to earn a master's of business administration from the University of Richmond, Va., and a PhD in philosophy from Virginia Commonweath University.

After a successful career in the banking industry, Martin got into education in the mid-1990s and has served as a dean and professor of management in the Reginald F. Lewis School of Business at Virginia State University in Petersburg since 2009.

Martin came to Hays three weeks before taking over her new post July 1 to get acquainted with the community and campus and to -- well, work.

"I don't have a job; this is a passion," she said. "People back East think you're a workaholic for working past 5 (p.m.). But this is not work. This is forging relationships. "

Martin believes in that philosophy so strongly she even was "working" on July 4.

"Why would I not want to visit with my family on the Fourth of July weekend," she said, "and the people of Fort Hays and Hays are my family."

Her immediate family is comprised of her husband, John, who will join her in Hays, and a college-aged son and daughter. The Martins' daughter, 25-year-old Katherine, is a doctoral student at the University of Miami, Fla., and their 21-year-old son Patrick is a student at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

Martin wants people to know she is approachable, she speaks many languages, and she wasn't talking about the three foreign languages at which she is fluent.

She wants anyone and everyone -- from faculty and staff to students, from community members to visitors from out of town -- to stop her and introduce themselves.

"I want to get to know everyone, and hear what people have to say," she said.

While Fort Hays has set enrollment records the past several years, Martin said the university mustn't rest on that success but continue to move forward.

"We need to focus on increasing our retention rate," Martin said. "It's not just about bringing (students) here. It's about bringing them here and helping them cross that stage (at graduation) successfully."

She said she is going to "challenge the faculty and the staff and the community to enhance our brand" of Forward Thinking, World Ready.

"Fort Hays State University is a hidden jewel, and we need to showcase it," she said, "to attract the next generation of leaders, let people know it's there for all to partake."

She said she is anxious to get the school year started, come Aug. 18.

"At the core, people here are interested in helping students, and that's who I am," Martin said.

"That's my No. 1 priority, what we're doing to be in the best interest of the students."

Rather than make many immediate changes right away, she said she plans to sit back and take notes, both written and mental, throughout the next few months.

"The first year is going to be a year of listening," she said, "a year of understanding what it is that we need to do to push this university to the next level."

"I listen," Martin said, smiling at the thought of the word she knew was going to come out of her mouth, "because that's my job."