“It was almost like Moby Dick had come to life,” Paulita Bennett-Martin remembers. “I was swimming in the ocean with my husband, and I heard this sound, and I saw the spout of a whale five feet from me. I swam with it, and it was just me and the whale, for fifteen minutes. I didn’t set it up or pay for it — it just happened. It was a moment that’s stayed with me forever.”

When Bennett-Martin did some research, she discovered that the whale she’d encountered in the waters off of Miami was a Right whale — and that there may only be 450 of them left in the world. She also found that in spite of the species’ endangered status, the Navy was proceeding with plans to create an undersea training range right next to the whales’ calving grounds off the coast of Georgia and Florida.

Bennett-Martin had been working in nonprofit management, but she’d been thinking about going back to school to study environmental issues and other subjects she was passionate about. “That was what cemented it,” she said of her whale encounter. “I thought, ‘You need to do this, why don’t you do this?’ Fortunately I have an awesome husband and family, and they told me, ‘Go back to school, man! You should’ve done it before!’”

Today Bennett-Martin is on the verge of earning a geography degree from Georgia State. From there, she plans to attend law school and focus on environmental and human-rights law, perhaps even pursuing a doctorate — “I’m looking at a couple different doctorates that are really progressive, that combine geosciences along with anthropological studies,” she says.

A Mid-Life Leap of Faith

Originally from Miami, Bennett-Martin had previously studied photography at Daytona State and came to Atlanta to open a new branch of her gallery. From there she began working with museums, which introduced her to the nonprofit world.

“I had worked my way up to operations management in nonprofits for art and design, so I was as high as you could get without having a more formal degree,” she says. “And I started realizing, I’m in here working 65 hours a week, setting the executive director up to do her meet-and-greets, and I could really make more change happen if I had a better education. I had an intuitive understanding of the things I would sit at the table and talk about, but I didn’t have the scientific understanding.”

The decision to go back to school presented challenges — some external, some from within. The external challenges, as they do for many students, involved money; Bennett-Martin didn’t want to spend more than she and her husband had. Fortunately, she received a scholarship from the Women’s Philanthropy Initiative, as well as a grant from the Honors College and stipends for her research.

The internal challenges involved nervousness about returning to school in her 40s — “I’ve always been nervous about school, because I feel like I learn in a different way than the typical classroom setting” — and making a major life change by leaving her art career behind.

“It was difficult, I think, because I was transforming from more of a subjective kind of field, something where everything came from me, to a field where there are formulas and absolute truths,” she explains. “That was different. It was just an unusual feeling. In a way, though, it was also a really inspiring feeling, because it puts a lot into perspective when everything’s not about you and what you like.”

An Open Door for Discovery

Fortunately, Bennett-Martin says she felt at home and at ease almost from the minute she stepped onto Georgia State’s campus. “Once I started taking geography classes, I thought, ‘This is where I needed to be,’” she says. “I have not had a single professor whose lectures I didn’t completely love. I have not missed one of my lectures since being at Georgia State because of how much I’ve enjoyed it.”

She singles out lecturer Leslie Edwards as having been particularly inspirational. “She’s a biogeographer, so she knows tons about plant and animal species and the way the natural environment comes together. She was just incredible — I’ve actually met other students in the department who are there because of her. She really loves what she does.”

Bennett-Martin’s discoveries haven’t been limited to the lecture hall, though — far from it. Not only have professors such as Tim Hawthorne and Christy Visaggi guided her in exploring the natural world for her research, she’s been able to rediscover the country of Belize in the process, where her family is from and where she lived until she was about four years old.

“Previously, when I would go home to Belize, there’d been a million trips that my family would go out on — boat trips to do the shark tours, snorkeling, that sort of thing. I’ve been in the water with more than 100 sharks before, but it’s always been on these guided tours where they know the area and they’re used to doing it twice a day every day.

“This summer, though, I got to do research and explore the whole country, very remote areas, to the point where my family who still lives there was like, ‘We’ve never even been there.’ I had to hail men with tiny boats to take me across lagoons full of crocodiles. It was incredible to see that, because seeing it on my own like that, I knew this really was a special place with some special people.”