Vanderbilt graduate awarded Rhodes scholarship

Sarena Martinez (’16) was chosen as a member of the 2020 class of Rhodes scholars. She plans to pursue a master’s in Public Policy at Oxford.


Sarena Martinez transferred to Vanderbilt after starting college at age 16. (Photo courtesy Sarena Martinez)

Adin McGurk, Staff Writer

Vanderbilt graduate Sarena Martinez (’16) was recently selected as a member of the 2020 class of Rhodes Scholars, an honor only awarded to 32 of the nearly 1000 applicants. The Rhodes Scholarship, the oldest award fellowship in the world, enables recipients to study at Oxford University and pursue a degree of their choice. Vanderbilt hasn’t had a Rhodes Scholar named since 1998, though three finalists this year were from Vanderbilt.

Martinez transferred to Vanderbilt her junior year after studying from the age of 16 at Bard College at Simon’s Rock. During her years in Nashville, she started a Vanderbilt chapter of Active Minds, a mental health awareness and education organization, and conducted research in pediatric functional abdominal pain at Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital with Lynn Walker, a professor of child and adolescent psychology. 

After graduation, she was selected as a Venture for America fellow and moved to Birmingham, Alabama where she helped to launch a workforce development program out of the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Martinez’ work in Birmingham and the people she worked with ultimately motivated her to apply for Rhodes, she said.

“I came to Birmingham and sort of started to understand and study work force systems and that led me to study the economy,” Martinez said. ”With some encouragement, I applied to Rhodes and really started to study the next iteration of the questions I’ve been asking around how we help post-industrial cities to make sure they’re ready to compete in the knowledge-based economy.”

Since then, Martinez has continued to work toward answering those questions, working in what she calls a “reimagined office of economic development.” Her work focuses on creating jobs and increasing transportation access in Birmingham at large. 

“If people can’t get to work, that’s a serious issue,” she said.

The Rhodes Scholar application requires a long list of materials including a letter of endorsement from her university, a 1000-word personal statement, a two page resume, and eight letters of recommendation. Martinez sought her letters of recommendation from people that inspired her throughout her academic career, placing specific emphasis on her mentor, Josh Carpenter, who she met during her time with Venture for America.

Carpenter was Martinez’s source of encouragement to apply for Rhodes both the first and second time she applied. She first submitted an application to be a part of the 2019 class of Rhodes scholars and made it to the finalist round but did not ultimately receive a spot. She credits the jump from finalist to winner in the 2020 class simply with more experience working with the issues she is passionate about. 

“I had an entire year to really deepen my understanding of the types of problems that post-industrial cities face but also my commitment to the questions,” she said. “I met so many more people, and I’ve sat in town halls and just been inspired.”