Unfinished Business

by Mary Shipp Bartlett

A student and her professor meet for lunch one day after an art history class at Chaffey College. The student, Martha Arguello, is the mother of three teenage boys. Once a serious scholar at NYU, she had “stopped out” during the turbulent ’70s to come to California with her mother and siblings. Now, she has returned to community college and is just taking courses she likes; she isn’t focused on a degree.

The professor, a CGU graduate in fine arts, begins to discuss another woman who, she says, didn’t plan to complete her education.”Why wouldn’t a woman invest in herself?” she poses.

Wham. Although the professor is ostensibly referring to someone else, the question goes straight to Martha’s heart. She thinks,”I’ve invested in everybody else, now it’s time to invest in me.”

Jump ahead, three years later, to May 15, 2005. Martha marches down Elm Tree Lawn, the senior member of the Class of 2005, and graduates from Scripps College with honors in both art history and history. Her husband and three sons (now 18, 21, and 23) cheer as she strides across the outdoor stage for her diploma.

This fall, Martha will continue to invest in herself—and in her chosen field—as she enters the Ph.D. program in history at the University of California, Irvine. Her goal is to teach, write, and to do scholarship on the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and Cuba.”This area of the Caribbean is an up-and-coming area of study,” she says. “It’s also an underrepresented area that I believe I can contribute to.” Martha also received offers from Tufts, Brandeis, Connecticut, and Purdue Universities, and well as UC campuses at Santa Cruz, Santa Barbara, and Los Angeles.

Martha discovered her love for art, history, and writing early in life. Born in the Dominican Republic, she joined her parents, who had immigrated earlier to New York City to escape the dictatorship of Trujillo, when she was seven. In Manhattan, she went to a Catholic boarding school and then to Mother Cabrini High School, which remains an all-girls’ school with high academic standards.

From an early age, she was taught art; from elementary school on she started winning medals and her work was shown in local exhibitions. Nearby was the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at the New York Public Library, which fed her interest in history; the center contains the entire collection of Arthur Schomburg, a black Puerto Rican. As a teenager, she recalls that she was very much in tune with the Civil Rights Movement. When Malcolm X was killed, in 1965, it happened at the Audubon Ballroom, five blocks away from her home and the dance hall and meeting place for young people in the community. “I remember the day,” she said.”We were devastated.” In school, she read Malcolm X’s autobiography.

She developed her own writing. At her graduation from Mother Cabrini, Martha won the English subject award based on her writing skills. It was a proud moment for her and her parents, especially as English was a second language for them all. Her mother and father encouraged her to go to college, and she went to nearby NYU on a scholarship.

Even though Martha did not pursue her formal education for many years after attending NYU, she continued her artistic interests. She also concentrated on being a wife and mother. She had had such a strong art education as a child that she was dismayed when art wasn’t offered at her middle son’s school. She volunteered to step in and teach an after-school program, and was hired on the next year. Several years later, she learned that the art teacher at Saint Mark’s School, in Upland, California, where her children attended, was nearing retirement. She began helping out in that class and eventually took over as art teacher for all the elementary grades; for the past seven years she has taught art there two full days a week, even when attending Scripps full time.

Martha Arguello chose Scripps, after that fateful lunch meeting, after another one of her Chaffey professors urged her to explore The Claremont Colleges. Accepted to both Scripps and Pitzer, Martha found Scripps was the stronger campus in which to pursue art history. She loved the idea of a women’s college with its emphasis on women’s achievement and its supportive environment. Plus, it was beautiful.

But combining college, teaching, and family life has been a tough balancing act for Martha, who credits her family for their enormous support. All three sons will be in college next year, one at Otis College of Art and Design and the other two at Cal State, San Bernardino. “I try to be an example for them,” she says, and adds, with a laugh,”I’m the best student in the house—and they know it.”

Martha also credits her academic success to close relationships with the faculty, both at Scripps and Pomona:”I was lucky to have been mentored by Cindy Forster [associate professor of history]. She was my anchor.”

As for the Scripps students, most of whom are near the ages of her sons, Martha admits to a bit of disconnect at first. But once here, she immediately joined Café Con Leche, then in its founding year. She regularly goes to Candlelight dinners at the Malott Commons to meet people, and has volunteered to teach art for the past three sessions of the Scripps College Summer Academy.

“I make my way,” Martha says. Indeed she does. History has proven that.