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This article, written by Tom Lindley, appeared in the The Oklahoman on April 25, 2004, and is used here with permission.

Panhandle university opens door

2004-04-25
By Tom Lindley
The Oklahoman


GOODWELL — Some say this is a hard land, which might explain why young artist Antonio Martinez is partial to hard pastels.

Deep purple adds mystery and allure to the tantalizing blue eyes and the face of his latest portrait. It is the Oklahoma Panhandle State University art student’s way of drawing his model out of the shadows, just as his plight has drawn others into the light.

"My art is a piece of me, something from me," he said last week. "It brings me peace."

The serenity of a college campus is only 10 miles down the road from where Martinez went to high school in Guymon, but he had to spend nearly two years, travel hundreds of miles and go public with a private fear to get here.

He is the son of immigrants, and his arrival at the Capitol last year was instrumental in convincing the Oklahoma Legislature to pass a bill allowing noncitizen Oklahomans to qualify for in-state tuition, scholarships and financial aid.

Unfortunately for him, Martinez’s parents are long- time legal residents of the United States who had not obtained their citizenship. Although he grew up on Spider- Man and was a four-point- plus student, Martinez faced the reality that he didn’t have a country.

He did not have the documentation he needed to receive the art scholarship Panhandle State was offering him. He also didn’t have enough money to pay what a noncitizen is charged to attend an Oklahoma university, which meant he didn’t have a clue what he would do with the rest of his life.

There was always the packing plant, and, like many Hispanic immigrants, Martinez, now 20, eventually might have gravitated to one of the processing plants on the northeast side of Guymon, where the thought of hard work is secondary to the promise of decent pay.

The possibility of going to college — much less the likelihood of making a living drawing pastels — has not been afforded to many Hispanic immigrants, who often are reminded that they work on the floor or in the field, while the best jobs usually go to the white guys.

New Panhandle State President David Bryant believes the university’s future is tied to ending that stereotype, which means Martinez, who is close to completing his freshman year, could continue to help open doors for others.

"The place for us to start is to provide the educational opportunity for people," Bryant said.

Bryant’s words strike at the heart of a growing debate in Oklahoma about the future of the state’s 13 public universities. Critics say Oklahoma has too many regional universities and is wasting money on the duplication of services.

Financial stakes high

State appropriations to higher education increased from $555 million in fiscal year 1995 to $800 million in fiscal year 2003, but universities and colleges maintain that they need much more to replace a decaying infrastructure and provide room for the additional 20,000 students they gained in the past year.

But higher education’s efforts to persuade lawmakers to find new revenue may have blindsided Gov. Brad Henry, who proposed a $65 million increase in his budget but was trumped shortly after by the Council of Presidents’ $500 million proposal, which they say amounts to only a third of what they need.

The financial stakes are magnified for smaller universities, such as Panhandle State, whose educational mission already is unique in that more than half of its students are from out of state and its largest potential for growth lies with the West’s burgeoning Hispanic population.

Given the state’s vast educational needs, the test for Panhandle State will be whether Oklahoma is willing to make a commitment to importing students and educating the children of immigrants.

Bryant would argue that it is an investment with a high return, given that out-of-state students and Hispanics help the economy, improve the quality of the workforce and add to Oklahoma’s cultural richness.

Panhandle State’s $7 million share of the bond proposal would be used to build a new science and agriculture center in an attempt to increase enrollment in one of its most essential areas of study.

There is one new building on campus — the Noble Cultural and Activity Center — and new student housing is under construction. But efforts to continue to boost enrollment, which now numbers about 1,200, remain focused on giving students a reason to stay.

The problem, obviously, is that all roads don’t lead to Panhandle State, and the one that leads out of Goodwell is so straight and wide it begs for acceleration. But the new sheriff — make that the new president — has taken an aggressive approach to recruit and retain students at the only four-year school within 100 miles in any direction.

A week ago Friday, Bryant discharged three of his top administrators. Monday, he hired a new women’s basketball coach. Tuesday, he gave the hard sell to more than 60 area high school Hispanic students who were on a recruiting trip. Tomorrow, you might find him painting the curb in the parking lot.

"The university has to be a presence, and we’re paddling real fast to catch up and be an integral part of the changing times," he said.

The football coaches and their wives painted the football stadium. Members of the championship rodeo team clean up trash around campus without being told, and art students have painted their own building and bought the furniture for the student lounge.

"This has been an exhilarating experience," Bryant said. "There’s something about the people here."

Art professor Bryon Test said the only problem is that "we’re so detached from the rest of the state, they don’t even know we’re here."

That could change, because at the rate Antonio Martinez’ portraits are selling, it’s likely that some day when you think pastel, you will immediately think Panhandle.

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