Pablo Martinez-Mejia and Elizabeth Trejos-Castillo say fate brought them together.
Whether it's chance or destiny, it seems like there's almost always a little bit of luck involved in meeting that one special person worth loving forever. Being at the right place at the right time can be just a little too serendipitous in today's fast-paced world. But with some love stories, it's nearly impossible to miss how precisely the stars had to align for things to turn out the way they did.
Pablo was born in Tegucigalpa, the capital city of Honduras, one of Central America's poorest countries. Tegucigalpa was growing rapidly; by Pablo's early childhood, it had more than 400,000 inhabitants – more than eight times as many as only 40 years earlier and nearly half of which were younger than 15. By several measures, it was struggling to keep up with that growth. One of those measures was its educational system.
“My elementary and middle school education was basic at most; the public school I attended was not good,” Pablo said. “For that reason, my father made a financial effort to send me to an excellent private Catholic high school where I learned a great deal about many topics, even though my grades were no good.”
After high school, he enrolled in public university for two years, where he says his performance continued to be poor. Then, he heard from a high school classmate who had enrolled in the region's most prestigious private university, the Zamorano Pan-American Agricultural School, generally known as “El Zamorano.” His classmate suggested Pablo apply as well.
“Even though my chances for admission were slim, I applied,” he recalled. “To my surprise, the score of my admission test was the highest of the entire pool of applicants. That is how I was able to secure a partial scholarship to attend the university.”
Elizabeth grew up in Costa Rica, which was then – and still is – one of the wealthier Central American countries. For high school, she attended the Castella Arts Conservatory.
“When you graduate, you receive a diploma that is equivalent to an associate's degree in arts,” she explained. “So I had a double degree in theater and creative writing/poetry.”
She entered the University of Costa Rica as a pre-med student, intending to become a neurosurgeon. But while waiting to be accepted into the program, she began taking psychology classes.
Pablo was in his final year at El Zamorano, just finishing his associate's degree in agriculture, when he noticed a post on an announcement board about the Central American Program of Undergraduate Scholarships (CAMPUS).
The Fulbright Program had initiated CAMPUS in the 1980s to enable academically gifted students to obtain bachelor's degrees at U.S. colleges and universities. It provided scholarships for students to complete 30 months of academic course work, including intensive English-language training, general education courses and specialization in disciplines including business administration, communications, computer science, education, natural sciences and social sciences. At the end of those 30 months, the students are required to return to Central America for at least two years to serve their region with their newfound knowledge.
Because the program was seen as so prestigious, it received thousands of applicants each year and only a handful from each country were accepted into the program. To narrow down the applicant pool to a final group, applicants must make it through a monthslong process, facing round after round of cuts, including a general exam and a final interview with the Fulbright Commission from the U.S.
Pablo applied to the program in 1992 for its seventh group, CAMPUS VII. He reached the final interview, but was rejected.
“The selection committee thought my career choice, agribusiness, was not fitting for the Fulbright Program,” he said. “However, I applied the following year for CAMPUS VIII, got to the final interview again, and when asked why I was applying again, and with the same career choice, I answered, ‘My education is in agriculture, Honduras is an agricultural country, and since the U.S. is the main market for Honduras' exports, studying agribusiness in the U.S. sounds like a pretty good idea.'
“I got in.”
Elizabeth, who in early 1993 was still studying psychology while waiting for her chance to enter medical school and become a neurosurgeon, was sort of blindsided by the CAMPUS opportunity.
“I had no idea about this program,” she said. “I always wanted to apply for a scholarship, but it was not something I was really pursuing. A friend showed it to me and insisted on doing it. I was not mentally there, but he walked me through it and sold it very well to me. I said, ‘I don't know; this is really competitive and very difficult,' but I ended up applying.
“Every time I got through a new cut, I didn't think I would make it through the next one. It's a whole year of testing and checking – the selection process is very long. When I received the news in December, I just couldn't believe it.”
Coming to the States
The American universities that work with the Fulbright Program accept a certain number of students each year, and Fulbright decides which university each student will attend. For the 30-month period from 1994 to 1996, Iowa State University was assigned 10 students: Pablo was joined by two other students from Honduras, three from Nicaragua, two from El Salvador, one from Guatemala and one from Costa Rica – Elizabeth.
“It's interesting, the odds of us going through the same process at the same time and ending up at the same university,” Elizabeth laughed.
As all the CAMPUS students arrived in the U.S., their first stop was Miami for a three-day immersion workshop.
“It was very intense,” Elizabeth recalled. “They provided information about immigration, law, paperwork, the universities, the systems, the weather – everything you can imagine.”
The students meet first according to country – the Costa Ricans together, the Hondurans together, etc. Then, the administrators from each university are introduced and the students meet their university's delegation.
“That's how I met him,” Elizabeth said.
“I was the only one from Costa Rica. I felt like the ones who were the only ones from our country were just drawn to talk to each other because the others knew each other already. I noticed he was looking at me, but I didn't really like him in the beginning. I guess I felt shy or something, and all I was thinking was, ‘I'm here, I'm going to make the best of this opportunity.'”
Perhaps it was Elizabeth's shyness that contributed to Pablo's initial impression.
“I thought she was a snob,” he said. “But when I met her, I felt that she was extremely smart and an incredible, beautiful human being full of passion and ‘pure' energy.
“I knew very soon that I wanted to marry her. It might be a case of ‘love at first sight.'”
Elizabeth, as she says, “definitely was not paying attention.”
Starting at Iowa State
Upon their arrival in Ames, Iowa, the CAMPUS students stayed with host families for a few days because the university was not yet in session. The host families helped immerse the students in the culture and language, which were very foreign to them.
“None of us was very fluent in English,” Elizabeth said. “My English was really bad; I could not even function. We took six months of intense English courses and, by summer, we were ready to start school.”
During those classes, the students were separated according to their level of English proficiency. Pablo was more advanced than Elizabeth, so they were in different courses. But the Fulbright Program also hosted meetings for the CAMPUS students every two weeks to see how they were adjusting.
“All of us were new,” Elizabeth said. “We felt like we were struggling with the weather, with everything. It's just an adaptation process.”
It was during those meetings when Elizabeth first began to really notice Pablo.
“He tried really hard,” she laughed. “He always told me it was love at first sight, and I have to give it to him, he was completely invested. I started noticing he was trying to get closer to me; every time I turned around, he was there.”
Not long after Elizabeth and Pablo began classes, they both received some unexpected news.
“When I transferred to Iowa State, they told me that not only was I going to be able to transfer all the coursework from Costa Rica, but I was going to be done with my undergrad in a semester,” Elizabeth said. “Presented with that, and knowing I was going to be there for 30 months with Fulbright, I talked to the adviser and the Fulbright Commission and their advisers, and I told them, ‘I don't want to spend the rest of my time here just taking random classes. If I'm allowed, I would like to complete another degree.'
“At the beginning, they were very cautious about it. They said they didn't know if I was going to make it. And I said, ‘Just let me do it. If I don't make it, I don't make it. But at least I'm not going to feel like I'm just wandering around for 24 months.'”
Pablo, it turned out, was in exactly the same situation, so they both ended up completing a double degree: Pablo in agricultural business and animal science, and Elizabeth in psychology and rhetoric and technical communications, with an emphasis in graphic design.
“We did it together, so we were overachievers in a way,” she laughed.
Because they were so frequently together around other people, Elizabeth says it's difficult to define exactly when their first date was, but she remembers one particular event.
“We had a dance,” she recalled. “He asked me if we could go to the dance, but then he said he wasn't going to go – I don't remember if he changed his mind or he was not feeling well. So I told him I was still going to go to the dance without him, and he ended up showing up at the dance, so that was kind of our first date.”
Their relationship was off and on throughout 1994, Elizabeth said.
“That's probably because I felt like he was committed to something more serious than I was,” she admitted. “I was just 19 years old. I had just made it to the States, I couldn't even speak the language, and I was dreaming about everything and overwhelmed by everything. This was my first time away from my family, my country. It was a really stressful time.”
Over the winter break, Elizabeth's family came from Costa Rica to visit her, so she spent several weeks apart from Pablo.
“When we came back from that break, he was ready to secure things,” she said.
“I did not propose, per se,” Pablo explained. “I told her I was going marry her.”
“It was my birthday, Jan. 19, 1995,” Elizabeth said. “We were students; we had no money, we had no savings at that time, so there wasn't even a ring involved. But he showed up with flowers and he said, ‘I want to marry you.' I was blown away by that, but I said ‘yes.' That's when we got very serious, and after that, we've never been separated.”
After Pablo and Elizabeth graduated from Iowa State in May 1996, they moved to Honduras to be near Pablo's family. They were married two months later.
“The plan was to go, work for two years and serve the country to fulfill the requirements of the Fulbright, and then apply to come back to the United States to go to school,” Elizabeth said. “We always wanted to continue our education. That's one of the things about finding a partner for life: you have to share goals.”
Elizabeth became a psychological counselor at the Psychiatry & Depression Clinic in La Policlinica Hospital in Tegucigalpa and taught graphic design at a private university. Pablo started as a poultry farm manager and then joined the Department of Agribusiness at El Zamorano.
“Once we fulfilled the first year, I got pregnant with my son, and then I got pregnant again,” Elizabeth said. “We applied to different universities in the United States and, even though we were accepted, they didn't have any assistantships at that time.”
Pablo, working as an instructor at El Zamorano, met a professor from Auburn University who was working on a project in Central America.
“He was looking for two people to work on a project about growing tilapia fish,” Elizabeth said. “The project had one part about economic production: the exports and imports and the production of tilapia at a greater scale. But his area of expertise was rural sociology, so he was also interested in hiring someone to work on the rural sociology part of the project, to understand why people in those rural communities still produce tilapia: what are the challenges and what are some of the strengths of this approach for feeding families with low resources and providing an additional source of protein besides just beans or eggs.”
During this chance encounter, Pablo mentioned that his specialty was agribusiness and, although Elizabeth was a psychologist by training, she had worked as a research assistant for a rural sociology professor at Iowa State. As it turned out, the Auburn professor had gotten his doctorate in rural sociology from Iowa State University, and his adviser was the very professor Elizabeth had worked for.
“It was fate again,” Elizabeth said.
“It was going to be difficult because our sons were 2 and 3 years old, but it was a blessing because we were able to move our entire family. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for both of us to move together with our sons and also to be engaged in the same project applying our two areas.”
So after being accepted as research assistants and master's students at Auburn University, Pablo and Elizabeth were able to return to the U.S., bringing their sons along.
“We sort of promised that it was going to be two years and we'd come back to continue our education,” Elizabeth said. “Well, it took us five years and two children, but we finally made it.”
Returning to education
After completing their master's degrees – Elizabeth in rural sociology in 2003 and Pablo in agricultural business and economics in 2004 – they decided to stay at Auburn to earn their doctorates. There was just one problem: Auburn didn't offer a doctoral program in rural sociology.
“I didn't want to go back to clinical psychology,” Elizabeth said. “Then, somebody mentioned the Human Development and Family Studies program, which I'd never heard of. It was perfect. It combined my background in sociology, criminology, arts and also human development, working with youth and the community.”
While working toward their doctorates, both served as research assistants and instructors in their respective departments. So, as they neared the completion of their dissertations in 2006, they began applying to other universities, this time for faculty positions.
“We decided whoever was ready first would lead; either I was going to follow him or he was going to follow me,” Elizabeth said. “An opening came up here at Texas Tech, I applied and I got the job, so we ended up moving here.”
Pablo finished his dissertation a few months after arriving at Texas Tech and joined the faculty in the Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics, part of the College of Agricultural Sciences & Natural Resources, in 2007. Five years later, he transitioned into the Department of Personal Financial Planning in the College of Human Sciences. Elizabeth has been in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies for more than 11 years now.
“When I look back at how we came to know each other, Fulbright literally changed my life on so many levels,” she said. “I left my country. I met my husband. I had a lot of dreams about my future, a lot of plans; I had no idea I was going to meet someone, and not even someone from the States – it had to be someone from the same region. Fate had a lot to do with it.”
“Fulbright gave me an excellent education and a wife,” he said. “Remember, I was supposed to be a CAMPUS VII, but ended up being a CAMPUS VIII. Let's call it destiny.”
As Elizabeth said, some things are just meant to be the way they are.
“I believe in fate, and I believe in love,” she said. “When those two things come together, it's really hard to resist.”