Mother's Passion for Giving Back Inspires Sons
Brothers Ikenna and Faraji Martin were on track to play basketball professionally. Extremely talented, they spent their youth practicing and prepping to seize the opportunities ahead. Unfortunately, during their undergraduate studies, they were both sidelined with career-ending injuries. Ikenna Martin suffered a torn Achilles tendon, and Faraji Martin severely damaged his right knee.
Instead of letting these events derail them, they thought of their mother, Susie Holman, who raised them in Racine, Wisconsin. She was known around their community for taking care of the local children and for always being on hand when neighbors needed support. A social worker and single mother, she earned her Master of Public Health degree in her 70s and inspired her sons to achieve even greater things. The two men decided to pursue higher education, each serving as a support system for the other as they earned their PhD in Human Services and MS in Human Services degrees from Walden University.
“Our careers in basketball got cut short, but, naturally, we have a drive to achieve things,” says Dr. Ikenna Martin, who is three years older than his brother. “We wanted to challenge ourselves intellectually so we could continue what our mom had instilled in us.”
They kept their graduate studies a secret with plans to surprise their mother. Eventually, they couldn’t hold the secret anymore, and the family shared in their excitement right before the brothers graduated with their doctorates.
“I always said if I didn’t make it professionally in basketball, I would try to do what my mom was doing because she always taught us to give back,” says Dr. Ikenna Martin. “We were naturally around it every day, seeing her help someone or telling individuals where they could get resources to help their situation. Even though we didn’t have much, we saw her give so much of herself.”
“We wanted to give this to her because her hard work helped most of the kids in our neighborhood become somebody,” says Dr. Faraji Martin. “We wanted to say, ‘Thank you, you put a lot into not only us, but the whole community, and it paid off.’”
The brothers are using their education and experience to mentor youth at the Land of Lincoln Goodwill Industries in Springfield, Illinois. As Director of Youth Services, Dr. Ikenna Martin works with AmeriCorps volunteers and also helps to prepare children for success in college and the workforce. He assists about 70 children with their school work, SAT preparation and financial aid, and he provides guidance on in-home issues.
As Manager of Youth Services Programs, Dr. Faraji Martin works closely with his brother. He focuses on the Teen Responsibility, Education, Achievement, Caring and Hope (Teen REACH) program funded by the Illinois Department of Human Services. During critical after school hours, he works with youth to increase academic success, teach life skills, and encourage high school graduation.
“We always knew we wanted to work with kids, so we pursued degrees in human services at Walden,” says Dr. Faraji Martin. “From the beginning, Walden emphasized social change and giving back to the community. It encouraged us to keep doing what we were doing. We understood the purpose was to not just get our education, but to actually use it in our field and make an impact in this world.”
Dr. Ikenna and Dr. Faraji Martin focused their dissertations on issues that have informed their professional decisions and are also intrinsically personal to each of their experiences. Dr. Ikenna Martin’s research is about “First Generation African American College Student-Athletes and their Lived Experiences.” He was inspired by his mother, a first-generation college student, and his own experiences as the first in the family to play college sports.
He found that the African American students he spoke with felt lonely when entering college. They wanted to be a part of the larger school community, in addition to their college’s basketball team. Their involvement in a high-level sport precluded that, hampering their transition and sometimes leading them to leave school. According to the USC Race and Equity Center, only 55.2 percent of Black male student-athletes graduated within six years as compared to 76.3 percent of undergraduate students overall.
“These students think they are prepared, but they don’t have anyone in front of them to serve as role models,” says Dr. Ikenna Martin. “Students fail when they don’t feel like they are part of the whole college community. I hope my research encourages administrators, coaches and others to help first-generation African American student-athletes excel in college using necessary resources like mentoring, tutoring and service-learning.”
When identifying a topic for his dissertation, Dr. Faraji Martin thought about growing up without a male role model in his life. He researched the topic further in “Youth Overcoming Barriers Through Multiple Adult Mentoring Relationships.” According to his work, “African American male youth are at greater risk of dropping out of high school.” Dr. Faraji Martin identified that he and the young people he interviewed created informal mentoring relationships, pulling teachings from various trusted adults, including coaches, uncles and even older peers. The National Mentoring Partnership reports young adults with mentors are 55 percent more likely to enroll in college and that 69 percent of young adults found these relationships to be very helpful.
“One of the most influential mentors in my life was my first traveling basketball coach, Rudy Collum,” says Dr. Faraji Martin. “He took me to play in other cities when I was 12 years old, and it helped me to see a world with opportunities out there. His mentoring and coaching made me truly believe I could accomplish my goals and do what I want in life through hard work.”
Dr. Ikenna Martin also drew from informal mentors and hopes to write a book with his brother about their journey, offering tips on how to create successful mentoring relationships.
“As a kid, I was inspired by the Georgetown Hoyas basketball team and John Thompson, Jr., the first Black head coach to win a major men’s collegiate championship,” says Dr. Ikenna Martin. “He was known for being a father figure to his players and reminded me of the responsibilities of a coach. He stood for social justice and ensuring his players reached their full potential. As a mentor and coach, I emphasize developing young men and women into better versions of themselves to ensure they come back after post-secondary education to pay it forward like my coaches did for me throughout my life.”
In their dissertations, the brothers acknowledged each other, their mother, their informal mentors and Dr. Barbara Benoliel, senior core faculty in Walden’s PhD in Human Services program. Dr. Benoliel served as Dr. Faraji Martin’s chair and Dr. Ikenna Martin’s committee member.
“When I met Ikenna and Faraji, it struck me that I was seeing social change in action – they live it,” says Dr. Benoliel. “Individually and together, they strategically planned how to leverage their research to further their passion of supporting young men’s successful development with access to peer mentoring and higher education. They had the vision, and I was thrilled to be able to watch it come alive.”