A player’s basketball career is built upon a mastery of the basics—all the drills, sprints, and hours of practice. LaKissa Martin values the work that goes into building a strong foundation.

Her accomplishments in the most recent season with the women’s basketball team at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute speak for themselves. She served as team captain, started all 25 games, averaged 12 points per game, and received an All Liberty League Honorable Mention.

Off the court, she has established herself, as well. She has already accepted a position as a field engineer with a construction firm in Washington, D.C.

Her current success would represent notable achievements for anyone, but for Martin it’s also a testament to her incredible inner strength.

When she was only a freshman in high school, the pain and disruption caused by her mother’s drug addiction drove Martin to leave home. Taking matters into her own hands, she entered the foster care system.

Basketball proved to be a stabilizing force.

“I have built almost 90 percent of my positive relationships through basketball,” Martin said. “When my family wasn’t giving me what I needed, I got it from basketball. I got it from coaches, I got it from teammates’ parents, and that’s why basketball was so important to me.”

Despite her personal turmoil, Martin maintained her grades throughout high school. She is grateful that her biological mother taught her to value education. It was her foster mother, Barbara Dahl, who helped her begin the process of researching, visiting, and applying to college.

“For a long time, college wasn’t even in focus for me,” she said. “It really didn’t come into the picture until I was 17.”

Only 20 percent of foster children who graduate high school attend college, according to a 2014 report from the national nonprofit Foster Care to Success. The group estimates that those who earn a bachelor’s degree account for—at most—9 percent.

Martin defied the odds, signing on to attend and play for Rensselaer, where her drive continued to propel her forward.

Whenever she was faced with a heavy work load or a difficult test, she would tell herself, “Nothing is worse than what you’ve been through. You cannot give up. You can get through this.”

Her love of the game helped.

“Basketball makes me a better engineer,” she said. “It teaches me how to understand and interact with other people—how to work in a system and in a team.”

Martin’s years of hard work will soon pay off in the form of a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from the Rensselaer School of Engineering.

“I think what makes me so happy is that now I get to choose new goals and new dreams,” she said. “Knowing that I have options is just amazing, because I didn’t before.”

As she prepares to embark on her new life, basketball will continue to be a part of it. She’s planning to find a club team to play with or perhaps do some volunteering with a youth team.

“The goal is to pay it forward,” she said. “If you’ve had a lot of people take time from their own families and take time from their own children to give to you, I think you have to do something that pays it back to other people.”

Her interest in civil engineering is similarly motivated. It offers the opportunity to create a literal foundation for others—a place that is safe and stable.

“I like the aspect of building something that won’t fall down. Building it to be safe, building it to be structurally sound,” Martin said. “People are trusting you.”