Sirrina Martinez takes distance learning to a new level.

The Southwest Minnesota State University student is finishing her senior year while deployed to Africa as a member of the Minnesota National Guard.

Martinez, a non-traditional student from Lake Benton, is taking 13 credits online this semester, and hopes to be back for commencement in May. She is majoring in Communication Studies: Public Relations and Communication Studies: broadcast and digital media. She is a graphic design minor.

Martinez, a sergeant, is a public affairs noncommissioned officer with the 34th Red Bull Infantry Division, based in Rosemount. She is attached at the battalion level with 2nd Battalion, 135th Infantry Regiment, which is headquartered out of Mankato for this deployment.

“We make up the majority of Task Force Bayonet, which is comprised of over 900 National Guard soldiers from Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois. As a task force our mission is here in the Horn of Africa.”

The Horn of Africa is a region located in Eastern Africa, and is home to the countries of Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, and parts of several other countries. It consists of over 772,000 square miles and is home to over 138 million people.

“Primarily, we are providing operational security,” she said. “I travel between these countries and document what the soldiers are doing. My job is to tell the story of the task force to outside and inside stakeholders.”

Originally from Texas, she moved with her father to Tyler, Minn., when she was 5. She graduated from what was then Lincoln HI, in Ivanhoe.

As a member of the National Guard, “I was recruiting in Marshall and noticed SMSU had a Broadcast and Digital Media program, which had always interested me,” she said. “I had an AA degree already (from Ridgewater College in Willmar) and I thought that was a sign. I later added a second major and then a minor in graphic design.”

Prior to being deployed, she worked part-time as a reporter for the Pipestone County Star.

“I’m a multimedia journalist, which includes writing, video and photography. I do news and feature stories,” she said.

In order to prepare for her public affairs duty, she first went to the Defense Information School, a military school in Maryland.

“It was academically intense. Basically, it is a two-year school in three months,” she said. “I credit being able to do that with my pre-existing knowledge — what I learned at SMSU and my work as a civilian reporter.”

The climate is warm and the days are long for Martinez, who is the only public affairs soldier attached to Task Force Bayonet. Because of her hectic schedule, she is appreciative of the fact she can finish her degrees online.

She left Minnesota for Africa on June 17, and contacted her professors beforehand to see if she would be able to finish her senior year.

“The whole Communications area has been so supportive of me,” she said. “Julie Walker, Rick Herder, Ben Walker, Joss Ullian and Alma Hale; Scott Peterson in Psychology. All of my teachers have been so supportive.”

She is also appreciative of Veterans Service Officer Justin Guggisberg for his help and support.

Having online options helps non-traditional students.

“A lot of military people have our lives get uprooted, but we don’t want to be 50 when we finish our degree,” she said. “By moving online, SMSU is really helping these working adults and military personnel. I think SMSU sees the value in that.”

She entered the National Guard because “I was a young adult and needed a challenge. I wanted to experience things outside of what I knew — I wanted to see what the rest of the world was doing,” she said. “I was raised in a family where you serve. I challenged myself.”

Her father, Reynaldo, lives in Tyler, and she has a sister, Christie Wieme, who lives near Ruthton.

Throughout her career, Martinez has had many assignments and experiences: working as a military police officer and recruiter, state active duty assignments for natural disasters and flooding, and a deployment to the Horn of Africa. She has her eyes set on 20 years with the National Guard.

In these COVID-19 times, course delivery has taken many forms at educational institutions around the world, from in-person courses to distance learning. In Martinez’s case, that distance is roughly 7,864 miles.

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