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Back Story

Finding the Right Balance

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Miriam D. Martinez always envisioned herself in a career in higher education finance, and because of that she has always been intentional about the types of jobs and professional training that she has pursued. However, while her career aspirations were always clear, she had to learn how to juggle the competing responsibilities of work and family.  

“My biggest challenge has been finding a balance between work and home without compromising my family life or my career goals,” says the director of finance, Harvard Divinity School (HDS), Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. “To get where I am now, I have had to focus on what is most important to me and spend time doing just that. So far, I feel like my career trajectory is right where I envisioned, but it has required good planning of my time, which is a constant challenge.”

Never arbitrary in the positions for which she has applied, Martinez has carefully constructed her career path to learn and acquire skills for upward mobility. For example, in 2013 she was attracted to a financial position at Brigham and Women’s Hospital to gain experience in managing sponsored programs. 

“At Harvard University, and in higher education in general, it is very important to gain knowledge and experience in research administration,” she explains, “because a large portion of the funds we manage come from grants and awards, both federal and nonfederal, which require compliance with specific regulations. The experience and training that I gained at that job are very valuable now at HDS, since there are grants in our portfolio.”

I understand that you are bilingual in Spanish and English. How has that been helpful in your career?

Harvard University is an institution with students from all over the world. We have a diverse workforce and visitors from every continent. It is not uncommon to encounter someone speaking Spanish on campus, and I speak Spanish whenever I have a chance. 

On a personal level, being bilingual allows me to relate to a wider audience and understand different cultural settings. Having learned English as a young adult, I also relate to English language learners and try to be patient with those struggling to communicate. I understand the frustration and encourage people to keep trying. I am an example that it is never too late to learn a new language.

When did you learn English?

When I arrived at the University of Massachusetts (UMass) for my second year from the University of Puerto Rico, I struggled with the new culture and different language. At first, I couldn’t have a conversation or fully grasp what people were saying in English. 

Eventually, I became very involved with Latino professionals and campus activities, and my counselor encouraged me to transfer from the University of Puerto Rico, which I did.  

After I got an internship with the professional services firm Ernst and Young and was offered a job, I stayed in Massachusetts.

Tell me something about yourself that your co-workers probably don’t know.

I know how to juggle. Nothing fancy, just three small balls or apples. When I got to UMass, a few friends of mine were part of the juggling club. I got really excited and focused on learning that skill until I was able to juggle three balls.

Juggling is very handy for entertaining four children.

Have you had an event in your life that changed your outlook or perspective?

My husband’s family and my family were directly impacted by Hurricane Maria. The event and its aftermath made me grateful for the basic essentials—water and power—that we take for granted every day.

Over 100 years old, Andover Hall, Harvard Divinity School’s signature building, houses lecture rooms, the Harvard Theological Library, and chapel.

What motivates you?

At work, my biggest motivator is knowing that what I do supports the learning and growth of students. Personally, what motivates me is my family. I love seeing my children learn and use their imagination. I work hard for them. 

Considering your extensive career, what aspect of the job has changed you over the years? 

Managing people has changed me. I have learned that people are unique and bring different skills and talents to the table. We are all better when we learn from each other and respect each other. Being a manager has changed my view of the world in general, and it has made me more patient and considerate.

I spend a lot of time getting to know the different personalities and communication styles of my employees, and then adjusting my style accordingly to meet their needs. 

Shouldn’t your employees adjust to your style of management? 

I believe we should both make adjustments. I look for tools that help us understand each other’s personalities, such as personality tests for the work environment. We discuss the results with each other, so that we all know how we like to communicate and how to better communicate with each other. This allows us to establish relationships built on honesty and integrity.

Honesty and integrity are values that I bring with me in all my interactions, whether personal or professional. In working with my staff and others, I strive for open communication and integrity. In a finance role, these are of utmost importance, because we are entrusted with the management of resources and data that need to comply with policy and regulation. I need to do what is right in all circumstances. 

In my experience, people notice when you are honest and when that honesty comes from a good heart. Honesty builds trust, which is my ultimate goal. I want to be trusted by those who work with me and the employees I supervise. 

What advice do you have for those who are early in their careers at an institution? 

I personally visualized myself in a finance administration role for higher education very early in my career, but I knew I needed to gain more experience in certain areas. The job that I do today is informed by all the experiences I have gained throughout my career. Looking back, these experiences were not given to me by mere chance. I sought specific jobs and opportunities so that I could advance my goal. 

My advice: Define a clear career goal and seek jobs and training opportunities that are in line with what you want. Trust your instincts. When you know you are ready for a new challenge, go for it. Identify new job opportunities within your own department or explore opportunities within your institution or industry. 

Always make decisions that align with your goals.  

MARGO VANOVER PORTER, Locust Grove, Va., covers higher education business issues for Business Officer.

Credit: Kristie Welsh