Growing up on the north side of Houston, Danny Martinez wasn’t expected to go very far. But he’s proving the skeptics wrong by moving toward a bachelor’s degree in petroleum engineering from the University of Texas of the Permian Basin.

A first-generation college student and now a senior, Martinez is hoping to graduate in the spring, but he said it could be summer or fall. Helping him to achieve his goal is the President’s Falcon Award, presented for the first time at fall commencement in December.

The award is presented to a student whose accomplishments during the course of their undergraduate years are exceptional and reflect the highest ideals of UTPB, a news release said. Nominees demonstrate exceptional academic achievement, integrity, selflessness, leadership and service to the community.

UTPB alumni Dr. Francisco J. Morales, an optometrist, donated the money for the award. Morales earned his undergraduate degree from UTPB before attending medical school.

Martinez attended KIPP Houston High School, a college preparatory school. He was accepted to Texas A&M University and was planning to go, but at the last minute a counselor told him UTPB was very interested in students from KIPP Houston High School and was willing to bring him to Odessa for a private tour.

The Falcon Promise was also a factor because it pays for a student’s education if their families make less than $60,000 a year. Martinez said Texas A&M also was going to provide financial help, but everything just seemed like it was tailored for him at UTPB.

“It’s a smaller college which gives me the one-on-one time with my professors. Also, I like the environment with the students, the culture and things like that,” Martinez said.

He also liked the fact that the engineering program was relatively new and it had ABET, or Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology, accreditation.

“Overall the program is very good,” Martinez said. “… They really have been trying to prepare us for the field. There are professors that have a lot of experience in the oil and gas industry, or mechanical engineering.”

Martinez’s dream was to become an astronaut. In an economics class he took, the students did a project on oil and gas that caught his attention.

One of seven children, Martinez said he was headed in the wrong direction in Houston. Expectations were that he would end up in a gang, selling drugs, in prison or dead. People kept telling him he wouldn’t graduate from high school or be anything in life, and after hearing it enough times, he said you can start to believe it.

But his teachers, and especially his parents, motivated and encouraged him. Without that support, Martinez said he would have given up. He also has strong faith in God and is grateful to his professors, UTPB President Sandra Woodley and the donor, Dr. Morales.

Because he’s so close to his family, it was difficult for him to leave home. But he decided he needed to become independent.

Now at UTPB, he’s in his second year in the Student Senate, an organization he never thought about being involved in before.

“I like to help people encourage, motivate and empower others. I joined the Student Senate because I learned you do have a voice,” Martinez said.

Winning the $5,000 Falcon Award plus a matching grant in housing will enable Martinez to finish school.

“It was a blessing and a surprise. Everything worked out. That scholarship is what’s helping me continue to finish. Without it, I wouldn’t be able to finish and be able to soon graduate. I’m just really thankful. I thank God for all that stuff. It’s been awesome I didn’t really expect any of that stuff,” Martinez said.

Martinez said people have been reaching out to him with job opportunities and he hasn’t let go of his dream to be an astronaut.

His advice to others is never give up or allow anyone to derail your dreams.

“To tie in with that … no matter what problems or situations you’re going through, God is there for you. All you’ve got to do is call on Him and he’ll help you. He has never let me down. … If it wasn’t for him, I would have given up a long time ago,” Martinez said.

Forrest Flocker, interim engineering dean, said he applauds Martinez for his determination and willingness to stick with things to the end.

“It’s a compelling story. I don’t know of anyone else who has been through our engineering program with that kind of a tough start. It certainly does show that determination is a good asset to have. Determination and perseverance can overcome a lot of obstacles and Danny certainly has the perseverance and stick-to-itiveness that’s got him where he’s at now.