Orlando, Fla. | April – May 2019
'First Days in America'
We are finding, coaching and training public media’s next generation. This #nextgenradio project is created in Orlando Fla., where six talented student journalists are participating in a week-long state-of-the-art training program.
In this project, six immigrants talk about how their first days in America shaped their lives today.
Brazilian student’s mental health journey makes her an inspiration for others
Mayara Martines moved to the United States from Brazil in 2016 to attend college, an experience that she says caused her depression and anxiety. She overcame those psychological as well as economic challenges during her first days in America. And now she helps other international students at Valencia College in Orlando feel welcome in the U.S.
When Mayara Martines arrived in Orlando, Florida, in 2016, she found herself alone, sleeping on an air mattress on the floor of an empty, leaky apartment, slapping roaches, ants, and spiders with her flip-flops.
Overwhelmed with the financial and academic pressures of being a new student in the United States with little money and sparse knowledge of English, Martines started to question if she had made the right decision. The constant feeling of loneliness throughout her first weeks in America impacted her mental health, leading her to experience panic attacks and episodes of depression.
Martines, 26, came to the United States from her native São Paulo, Brazil, to study hospitality. She would eventually find it as an international student at Valencia College, where she said she was warmly welcomed. Today, she not only studies hospitality management but she also shares her experience with other new arrivals as an international recruitment specialist at Valencia.
She gets emotional as she looks back on her three-year journey. “I had anxiety and depression, especially last year. Because of that, I was scared to ask for help and share my story with others,” she said. She has had to overcome financial and mental health struggles that she now uses as a source of inspiration to help other international students who, like her, are chasing after their American dreams.
“I am totally a stronger person now,” Martines said. “I am more confident. I am not afraid anymore … now I have a voice that I didn’t have back home, and I want to help other people have that voice.”
Martines’ experience isn’t isolated. Panic and depression among Latino immigrants are associated with acculturative stress, the anxiety caused by the culture shock and adaptation to a new country, according to a study from the American Psychological Association.
The same study reveals that the main factors creating depression and anxiety among migrants are linked to socioeconomic status upon arrival, language barriers, lack of decent housing or quality health care, and separation from loved ones. Most Latino immigrants do not feel comfortable communicating their emotional struggles with their health care providers because of linguistic and financial concerns, according to researchers.
For Martines, one of the biggest challenges was coping with depression and grief because of the loss of two family members. “I have lost family members during finals’ week and experienced health issues. I had moments when I wanted to give up: pack everything and give up,” she said.
Some days she would find herself locked in her room, questioning her purpose in the U.S. and the worth of her sacrifice.
Martines said she found a lifeline and support in Valencia’s Intercultural Student Association (VISA), a club for students from other countries. “We are all in the same boat, sharing the same story,” she said. “Sometimes someone would say ‘I just lost someone,’ and I say ‘I just lost someone too.’ It helps all student to understand they are not alone. We help each other.”
Three years after her arrival, she has become not only a successful student who plans to pursue a master’s degree in hospitality studies, but she also works as a staff member at Valencia College, helping international students in their transition to the United States and educational success.
One of the students that Martines has impacted is fellow Brazilian Amanda Casquel, a 29-year-old paralegal major who came to the U.S. in 2015.
Martines was Casquel’s first contact at Valencia College when she enrolled in 2018 and helped her work through the enrollment process, answered her questions, showed her where to find resources and helped her settle into academic life.
“I think what most impacted me is that she believed in me and saw a potential in me that I didn’t see,” Casquel said, adding that Martines’ journey from Brazil inspires her.
Martines and Casquel now work closely together at VISA, where Casquel serves as the club’s community service officer.
“She is extremely determined and hard-working, she is very passionate about what she does and believes in what she does,” Casquel said of Martines. “I’m getting goosebumps [just talking about it]. I think when you work with someone with that kind of profile, it impacts you because you get infected and you want to keep up, look up to that person, be helpful, and you want to make a difference like she makes a difference.”
Martines said moving to a new country is a big challenge and newcomers need to feel like they are able to ask for help.
“Talk to your advisers, your co-workers, your friends, your family, or someone you trust and share with them what you are feeling … someone will guide you, and you get through it,’’ Martines said. “You need to keep remembering why you are here and where you are going.”
If you experience feelings of sadness, helplessness or anxiety during extended periods of time, please reach out for help. A medical professional or counselor can help you figure out how to deal with the situation and, if necessary, establish a treatment plan.
You can also get immediate support by calling national and local hotlines. Here are some resources available for the Central Florida community:
Mental Health Association of Central Florida
SAMHA’s National Helpline (available in English and Spanish)
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
The original version of this story incorrectly identified Mayara Martines as an immigrant. Mayara Martines is an international student with a temporary non-immigrant student visa at Valencia College. We regret the error.
‘I had moments that I just wanted to give up’
Mayara Martines is president of Valencia College’s Intercultural Student Association (VISA), a club for students from other countries. Members include students from Haiti, South Korea, Bulgaria and many other nations. (CREDIT: Nelly Ontiveros)
Mayara Martines’ desk chair at Valencia College is draped with the Brazilian flag. She came to Orlando, Florida, from her native São Paulo, Brazil, in 2016, to study hospitality management. (CREDIT: Nelly Ontiveros)
Icons depicting the Statue of Liberty, Wonder Woman and the flags of the United States and Brazil decorate Mayara Martines’ desk and remind her of her 3-year journey in the United States. (CREDIT: Nelly Ontiveros)