Syracuse University Magazine

Paula Martin

Paula Martin '68

Education Advocate

Nothing warms Paula Martin more than hearing about the accomplishments of a former student. “There’s nothing better than getting a call from a former student who now has more degrees than I do,” says Martin of the countless physicians, lawyers, teachers, and other professionals who made it to college with her assistance.

For 40 years, Martin has worked to provide educational opportunities to underserved students, including the last 25 as executive director of the Harlem Center for Education, which targets its efforts at four high schools and a middle school in Washington Heights and East Harlem. “These are the young people that need to be educated if we’re going to reach the Obama administration’s education goal of having the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020,” she says. 

The Harlem Center provides a broad range of free services—SAT preparation courses, after-school programs, tutoring, career, and college and financial aid counseling that augments what the schools provide themselves. Most of the students are from minority, low-income families (more than 80 percent qualify for the free lunch program), with parents who did not attend college. “These students have a lot of obstacles—starting with the quality of the public schools—that impacts their college readiness,” Martin says. “We try to fill that gap.”

Martin understands those challenges well. A product of the neighborhood herself, she was fortunate to have a mother who was determined that her daughter would not attend local public schools. Instead, Martin attended the Riverside School and Hunter College High School before heading off to Syracuse University, where she earned an undergraduate degree in psychology. It was a time of social upheaval, and Martin says she grew tremen-dously—academically, socially, and politically. She was active in the Student Afro-American Society, which was instrumental in waging the campus protest movement, demonstrating against a visit by Alabama Governor George Wallace and arranging for civil rights activist Stokely Carmichael to speak on campus. 

Martin went on to Teachers College, Columbia University, where she earned a master’s degree in developmental psychology. During her studies, she applied for a summer job teaching child psychology in Upward Bound, one of the original federal TRIO programs. At the end of the summer, Martin was hired full time as a counselor, and a year later, she was appointed assistant director. She remained at Columbia for 12 years, leaving in 1985 to become executive director of the Harlem Center. “This was not an intentional career, but one I discovered I had a natural passion for,” says Martin, who realized the opportunities education had created in her own life. “Sometimes, the thing that makes the biggest impact is just having an adult the kids can relate to take an interest in them.” 

The nonprofit Harlem Center receives funding from corporations and foundations, as well as U.S. Department of Education grants through two federally funded TRIO programs targeted to assist low-income individuals, first-generation potential college students, and individuals with disabilities in progressing through the academic pipeline from middle school to post-baccalaureate programs. Martin, who became the first female president of the Association for Equality and Excellence in Education, trains staff members of TRIO programs across the United States, and is passionate about the programs’ efficacy. She recently received the Council for Opportunity in Education’s Walter O. Mason award, the highest honor for educational opportunity professionals, named for the man who helped write the legislation for the first Upward Bound program. 

Martin is disheartened that despite the Obama administration’s ambitious education goals, funding for these programs remains stagnant. “The administration is putting forth new programs, such as Race to the Top, which are unproven, when they could be investing in programs that have been demonstrated to work,” she says. “I don’t see us meeting those goals without gearing up the TRIO programs.”   —Renée Gearhart Levy