Daughter of immigrants, first in her family to go to college

IECN courtesy photo:   The daughter of immigrant parents and the first from her family to pursue a four-year degree after high school, Mary Martinez has always relied on the one person she knew could get her to the top: Herself.
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The daughter of immigrant parents and the first from her family to pursue a four-year degree after high school, Mary Martinez has always relied on the one person she knew could get her to the top: Herself.

“I figured out early on that the motivation needed to come from me and not someone else,” the Alta Loma High School senior says, weeks away from graduating with honors.

Though she hasn’t made her final college choice yet, Mary has been accepted into Stanford University – the kind of prestigious institution she has had her eyes on since arriving at Alta Loma four years ago. Before then, she wasn’t sure where life would take her. At home, academics had never been as big a priority as making ends meet. Her father, from Mexico, and her mother, from the Philippines, both worked long hours, and Mary herself has had jobs since she was 16. Older siblings helped care for her, but there was never, in her words, “anyone forcing me to do well in school.”

She figured it out, however, and with the support of close friends and the faculty and staff at Alta Loma, Mary is prepared to take a bold academic leap forward. In doing so, she will join a growing fraternity of students across San Bernardino County who are becoming the first in their families to get a college education. In the process, they are helping to transform a region where nearly three-fourths of adults do not have a college degree, and roughly half have never received any kind of post-secondary education.

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“Preparing students for college and career is what we do – it’s our commitment to every student and family we serve,” said Dr. Mathew Holton, Superintendent of the Chaffey Joint Union High School District.

Jason Kaylor, Principal at Alta Loma, said students become embedded in that culture as soon as they arrive as freshman. “By the 10th grade, they’re taking formal assessments to help determine potential pathways,” Kaylor said. “Even for an exceptional student like Mary, whose academic record speaks for itself, figuring out what to do after high school can be an onerous task. We do everything within our power to help them navigate those next steps.”

Mary herself describes high school as “an eye-opening experience. Everything changed when I got here, and saw my grades. I really enjoyed being recognized as a good student.” She had a particular aptitude for science and took the equivalent of six years of advanced science courses during her four years. Her true interests, however, are government and economics, which she plans to pursue in college. Today, her grade-point average stands at 4.63.

The journey has had its challenges. While some of her peers were spending their summers attending expensive SAT prep courses, Mary worked to earn money for college. Despite her acceptance into Stanford, her eventual decision on where she will go to school will likely come down to cost. The staff at Alta Loma has been helpful in exploring financial aid opportunities, but she worries it won’t be enough.

“I know how expensive it is, and what I’ll be up against (debt-wise) when I’m through,” Mary said, admitting that she has never been comfortable asking for help. That goes back to her upbringing, and her reliance on herself to get things done.

“I’ve had to separate my home life from my school life,” she said. “It’s been hard to look to someone else as an example. I’ve looked to myself and only myself.”

Mary often doubted that would be enough, knowing too well the academic and social struggles that students from immigrant families often endure. “It’s not just an opinion, it’s a fact. You can see it in the numbers,” she said. “I questioned whether I would get to where I am. It’s what I wanted. I idolized it. But I didn’t know it would happen.”

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