Reaching out to Mercy College’s community and beyond


Sonia I. Martínez, associate director of public relations and community engagement at Mercy College’s Institutional Advancement Office. Courtesy Sonia I. Martínez.

Long before she joined the staff of Mercy College in Dobbs Ferry, Sonia I. Martínez was sold on the place. 

In 2003 when she moved to Westchester County, she was working remotely on a Master of Art’s degree in business administration when she received permission from Mercy College to do research there. 

“I always said, ‘Oh my God, I’d love to give back to this place,’” she recalled. “So when I saw a job posting, I said, ‘That’s what I want to do.’” 

By then she had launched Martínez & Associates, working primarily with nonprofits in community development and management.  Her experience has embraced everything from international trading to affordable and public housing, public education and humanitarian organizations. 

So it was fitting that in November of last year, Martínez should join Mercy’s Institutional Advancement Office as associate director of public relations and community engagement. It’s enabled her to help develop Hispanic enrollment, the largest component of the college’s student body; reach out to underserved Asian students; foster women’s leadership forums in Westchester County; and participate in the National Endowment for the Arts Big Read project – against a varied backdrop. 

“I was amazed to see the diversity of the school,” Martínez said.  

The student population is about 70% female and 44% Latino/Hispanic, which represents a 10% increase in Hispanic enrollment in the past seven years, she said. (About 60% of freshman are first-generation college students.) 

Mercy, which also has campuses in the Bronx and Manhattan, is celebrating 25 years as a Hispanic-Serving Institution, a U.S. Department of Education designation that enables the college to apply for three discretionary grants to enrich its academic offerings. (Mercy is also a Minority-Serving Institution, with a substantial number of Black students as well.) Recently, Mercy became the first private college nationwide and the first Hispanic-Serving Institution in New York state to receive the Seal of Excelencia, a national certification. 

“It gives you such a recognition, a validation of how you are serving Latino students,” Martínez said. “You have to create a culture in which they can thrive.” And that means also focusing on areas of improvement, she added, such as more Hispanic faculty and greater mental health services, a big need among students everywhere nowadays.  

Another area in which Mercy is striving to make inroads is the recruitment of Asian students. There is a stereotype in the United States that all Asian Americans are of Chinese and Indian descent and Ivy League-educated. When she worked for the American Red Cross, Greater New York Region, with responsibility for Manhattan, Queens and the Bronx, she saw that “so many don’t have the means for a good education. We’re here to help.” 

And not just minority students:  “We ensure that all of our students are succeeding.” 

Much of Martínez’s work takes her beyond the student body. In August, she helped establish the Women’s Leadership Group, in part to introduce Eva M. Fernández, Ph.D., as Mercy’s new provost and vice president of academic affairs, but also to answer the questions “Who are the stakeholders out there?” and “How can we at Mercy serve the community?” The event drew 12 women of various backgrounds and passions. The next, in November, drew 20 on a cold, rainy night. The group plans to meet quarterly. 

Martínez has also helped Mercy secure $8,700 from the National Endowment for the Arts’ Big Read for a series of discussions, workshops and cultural events in Westchester, the Bronx and Manhattan through April – all built around “Infinite Country,” Patricia Engel’s novel of a family caught between Colombia and the United States.   

Born in the “small, sleepy town” of Guanica, Puerto Rico, and raised in Brooklyn, Martínez has always loved to read. “Reading takes you places you thought you’d never visit,” she said, echoing Emily Dickinson’s poem “There is no Frigate Like a Book.”  

Receiving her Bachelor of Arts in political science from American University, Martínez thought about becoming a lawyer. But while temping she became interested in business, which led to a number of positions, including community executive for the Bronx and Upper Manhattan areas of the American Cancer Society; and chief civil rights officer and director of the Department of Equal Opportunity at the New York Housing Authority – the oldest and largest authority of its kind in the U.S. – serving 16,000 employees and 600,000 residents. 

Martínez’s passion for community has spurred her involvement in two prominent local health-care institutions. She is a member of New York Medical College’s Institutional Biosafety Committee and serves on the board of directors of the Alzheimer’s Association, Hudson Valley chapter. The latter is devastatingly personal for her as her father and uncle both died of the effects of Alzheimer’s seven and a half and four and a half years ago respectively. Her mother has now been diagnosed with dementia, the umbrella term for a group of conditions that cause progressive cognitive impairment.  

“When I saw what was happening in my own family, I said, ‘I have to get involved.’” That involvement has meant everything from supporting caregivers, who, she said, don’t have the time to take care of themselves, to advocating for legislation in Albany to combat a disease that she said will explode by 2030. 

It already has among people of color, she added.  Blacks are 1 and ½ to two times as likely as whites to be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia and Latinos 1 ½ times as likely as whites to be diagnosed. Diet and exercise may play a preventive role, but health inequities and systemic racism have stacked the deck against minorities, who already have trouble navigating the health system and receiving quality care, Martínez said. 

She is encouraged by the new drug lecanemab, which slows the destruction of the brain but noted it is for those in the early stages of the disease and has powerful side effects, including potential brain bleeds. Plus, she wondered, who will be receiving it? 

Nevertheless, Martínez said she will keep fighting what has been called “the longest goodbye,” because as she told Mercy’s Newsroom:  “I’ve seen what it’s done to my family and my friends’ families, and I don’t want other people to have to go through this.” 

Last year Sonia joined Mercy College’s Institutional Advancement Office working in Community Engagement and Public Relations. During her time at Mercy, Sonia is also working on Special Projects: Seal of Excelencia application, the National Endowment for the Arts Big Read Project, Women Leadership and Asian Student Recruitment. 

Previously, Sonia was the Community Executive for the Bronx and Upper Manhattan regions at the American Cancer Society responsible for income and mission goals, and while working at the American Red Cross in Greater New York, she was responsible for the regions of Manhattan, Queens, and the Bronx.   

As the Chief Civil Rights Officer & Director of the Department of Equal Opportunity at the NYC Housing Authority – the largest & oldest public housing authority in the country – Sonia ensured all public housing applicants, residents and employees were treated fairly and with dignity; she handled employee & resident relations for approximately 16,000 employees and 600,000 residents, including business opportunities & services for the disabled. 

 She served as Regional Director for a private after school program and immediately after graduating from college, Sonia worked in sales and marketing for a Japanese trading house. 

Ms. Martínez received her M.A., Business Administration from Kennedy-Western University and B.A., Political Science, from American University.  Sonia has served on several nonprofit Boards.  She currently serves on the Alzheimer’s Association Hudson Valley Chapter Board of Directors and is a Member at New York Medical College’s Institutional Biosafety Committee. 

Sonia is a resident of Westchester County. 

Sonia Martinez, associate director of public relations and community outreach at Mercy College, was recently appointed to the board of directors of the Alzheimer’s Association Hudson Valley chapter. 

The cause is close to her heart. Martinez began volunteering with the organization when her father was battling Alzheimer’s. Sadly, he passed away from complications of the disease a few years later. Now, Martinez’s mother has dementia. 

Martinez is passionate about educating and raising awareness about Alzheimer’s, particularly in Latino and Black communities, which are disproportionately affected by the disease. “I see so many families suffering because of this disease, and it’s horrible,” she said. “There are resources out there, but people don’t know about them.” For example, she explained that lifestyle changes such as a better diet can help slow or prevent the disease, but many people are unaware of this step. Martinez also wants to ensure health care providers — especially those working in Latino and Black communities — are educated about diagnosing the disease early so patients get treated in a timely manner. 

In her new board role, Martinez will continue to serve on two committees. On the Advocacy Committee, she helps educate and raise awareness about the disease with legislators in order to influence policy and secure funding for research and education. On the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee, she helps educate and raise awareness of the disease in communities of people of color. How Martinez successfully garners support for the Alzheimer’s community can also be seen in how she executes her role at Mercy College, which involves establishing and strengthening authentic relationships with diverse community partners that benefit both Mercy students and the community. 

Martinez is committed to volunteering with the Alzheimer’s Association for the long haul: “I will continue to do what needs to be done until we can find better treatments or a cure for this horrible disease. You spend years watching your loved one die a little bit more every day as they forget more and more. That’s why they call this disease ‘the longest goodbye.’ I will keep fighting because I’ve seen what it’s done to my family and my friends’ families, and I don’t want other people to have to go through this.” 

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