December graduate Amaya Martinez Mesa: ‘No other place for me to be’

It took just one semester at Carolina and Amaya Martinez Mesa felt like she was home.

“My first semester at North Carolina was definitely a tough transition away from my family and everything I knew,” said Martinez Mesa, “but after that first semester, I felt like I was at home and there was no other place for me to be and grow than here.”

Martinez Mesa will graduate with about 500 of her classmates during the Winter Commencement ceremony at the Dean Smith Center on Sunday. Her journey to this point started in Havana, Cuba, where she lived until she was 12, before moving with her family to Florida. She spent two years in a community college honors program and then, at the urging of an adviser, transferred to Carolina, where she majored in biology with a minor in Hispanic studies.

Here, Martinez Mesa stepped out of her comfort zone to try new things. Along with three classmates, she co-founded Feelin’ DNA, a nonprofit that builds 3-D models to bridge the gap between STEM topics and the visually impaired community. The project started as an assignment in Martinez Mesa’s genetics class. One of Martinez Mesa’s peers had the idea to use 3-D printers in one of Carolina’s BeAM makerspaces to print a double helix to help her better understand the structure of DNA. The project it took off from there.

In the summer of 2017, Martinez Mesa worked at a nonprofit in small community in rural Nicaragua. There, her job was to create a nutrition intervention to help the community eliminate anemia and malnutrition in children under 5 years old.

Before Carolina, Martinez Mesa admits she never would have made the trek to Nicaragua or started a nonprofit.

“I think any limitation I had before I came to Carolina has been taken down,” she said. “Carolina has definitely been a very challenging part of my life but probably the most rewarding because it has taken me out of my comfort zone and shown me what I’m capable of and that I shouldn’t put limits on myself.”

Video and story by Aaron Moger, University Communications