Maira Patino’s life was changed by her first experience with outdoor recreation – a hiking trip to Colorado when she was 14 years old.
“I went as part of a youth outreach program in a small suburb by Chicago right before my freshman year of high school and honestly didn’t know what hiking was until that trip,” Maira said. “It helped me discover a love for the outdoors but also realize that I could go to college and eventually to graduate school; it instilled in me a confidence that I could accomplish anything that I want to do.”
She’s been on the trail ever since, through a military career that took her to more than 22 countries, including Afghanistan, Italy, Portugal, Canada, Iceland and China, where she ran a marathon along the Great Wall.
That path is now leading her to Clemson University, where she’s pursuing a doctorate in youth development and community recreation, with a focus on serving immigrant children. She’s been awarded the Clemson University Graduate Diversity Doctoral Fellowship, which provides funding to support the university’s goal of increasing enrollment and retention of underrepresented doctoral students of color who are pursuing a Ph.D. The fellowships are jointly administered by the Clemson University Graduate School and its Division of Inclusion and Equity.
John Lopes, associate provost and dean of the Graduate School, says that the fellowship award program is designed to make sure that Clemson can empower students from many different backgrounds to reach their potential and become agents of change in the world.
“Students like Maira, who haven’t necessarily followed the most traditional and direct path to her Ph.D. program, often have unique experiences, approaches and strengths to contribute, thus they benefit from the fellowship, and Clemson gains even more from the diversity of their experience,” Lopes said. “And since these fellowships are designed to increase diversity among the professoriate, students will benefit from Maira’s example and work for generations to come.”
Although she’s Clemson-bound, her journey to her study focus started several years earlier, when she and her family immigrated from their small town in Mexico to the United States when she was six years old.
“My dad did seasonal work on a farm in Chicago, which helped him earn enough years to meet the criteria to apply for a green card, so my parents decided it was time to try to live the American dream,” Maira said. “We were able to build a better life for our family here, and I’ve dedicated my life to giving back ever since.”
At first, Maira thought the best way she could give back to her community was as a police officer, so she studied criminology in college. A three-year Army Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) Scholarship, however, motivated her to pursue a career in active duty in the military instead, which she describes as her first stepping stone into serving her country, as well as a desire to repay it for her college education. She earned a master’s degree while serving and initially focused on settling permanently in Chicago.
As her military career and education progressed, however, Maira wasn’t able to get that first hiking trip out of her mind. She felt a calling to make a different kind of impact by serving a smaller community, like the one her family left behind in Mexico and through the program that made such a difference to her as a teenager in the suburbs. She says she knew Clemson University was where she wanted to be after her first discussions with her mentors, Drs. Harrison Pinckney and Corliss Outley, who serve as faculty members in the Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism Management.
“I visited the department last September, and as Dr. Pinckney and I talked about youth development, camp management and everything he’s worked on, he really piqued my interest,” Maira said. “He and Dr. Outley were so welcoming and our conversations made me feel like this was the place and time for me to transition from serving the military to better exploring the impact of community programs for youth, either here or abroad.”
Pinckney said when he met Maira, he was impressed by her enthusiasm, passion and first-hand knowledge about community building.
“Maira is very sharp and impressive and brings a unique perspective, having insight into how the concept of community can shift in different parts of the world as well as common challenges and opportunities,” Pinckney said. “Dr. Outley and I are excited to start working with her to help her better explore what it means to build communities that are driven by equity, opportunity and a shared purpose.”
Although Maira is considering focusing her research on youth development programs that are oriented towards minorities in underdeveloped communities, she is also interested in the broader topic of immigration and in the benefits of outdoor education, given her own experience immigrating to the United States.
Maira is coming to Clemson as the first person in her family to earn her bachelor’s degree, pursue a postgraduate degree and serve in the military. She said her family is ecstatic about how far she’s come and continues to go.
“When I told my parents I was interested in moving on from the military into a Ph.D. program, there were emotions everywhere,” Maira said. “They’re super excited, and I’m excited to bring them to Clemson at some point so they can see what it’s all about.”
As she heads into her doctorate program, Maira says she’s going to keep the wonder she felt as a 14-year-old, first-time hiker top of mind, as a reminder of the importance and impact community programs can have on personal growth and development.
“It’s interesting to think about it now, more than 15 years later, how much that hiking trip really changed my life and drives the difference I want to make in the world,” Maira said. “Now I want to give back by helping youth and by being part of a community where I can change someone’s life the way they changed mine. I just can’t wait to get started.”
For more information about the Graduate Diversity Doctoral Fellowship, visit the award’s web page.
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