Like it was yesterday, Wendy Lopez Martinez still remembers the
foggy mornings of her childhood when she rolled out of bed before
dawn to make the long journey back to Zacatecas, Mexico.
Like it was yesterday, Wendy Lopez Martinez still remembers the foggy mornings of her childhood when she rolled out of bed before dawn to make the long journey back to Zacatecas, Mexico. A poignant essay describing those mornings, not to mention stellar grades and a tireless work ethic, helped clinch her admission into the University of California, San Diego.
The youngest of six children, Lopez Martinez, 17, will be the first in her family to go to a four-year university. But living far from home is nothing new for the Gilroy High School senior. After years of bouncing between Gilroy’s Arturo Ochoa Migrant Camp in the spring and summer and Zacatecas in the fall and winter, home is more of a state of mind than a physical building for Lopez Martinez. In the seventh grade, she decided to stay in California with her older brother and sister, saying good-bye to her parents when they followed the harvest back to Mexico.
“It was definitely very different from living with my parents,” Lopez Martinez said, a wry smile touching the corners of her mouth. “That was the first time that my grades dropped.”
Succeeding in school didn’t come easy to Lopez Martinez. She couldn’t turn to her parents for help with homework – they speak little English.
“Even the math was different between here and Mexico,” she said.
Bouncing from school to school didn’t help much either. Lopez Martinez ticked off nearly a half dozen schools she attended as a child: “Glen View, Las Animas, El Roble, San Ysidro, Solorsano …” she trailed off. “I think that’s it.”
At Gilroy High, she found her niche. She joined the badminton team, enrolled in the leadership class and numerous Advanced Placement courses, was elected diversity commissioner, and managed to pick up a third language – French – which she hopes to pursue along with political science in San Diego. Her ultimate goal is to work for Congress, she said.
Monday night, Lopez Martinez joined more than 100 scholarship recipients from San Benito and Santa Clara counties in a ceremony celebrating their success. South County Cal-SOAP, an organization that helps low-income and first-generation students succeed in post-secondary education, distributed $186,000 in scholarships – $132,500 to 79 high school students and $53,500 to college students – on behalf of the College Access Foundation of California.
Each year, the organization has been able to distribute more scholarships to more students, said Director Erin Gemar. But applications are up as well, so Cal-SOAP also has to deny more students than before, she said.
“For those of you that earned those dollars, you deserved those dollars, and much, much more,” she told students and their families – a standing room only crowd that packed into the Gavilan College student center for the ceremony.
About 20 fifth graders also accepted certificates for participating in Cal-SOAP’s I’m Going to College program.
The ongoing support of Cal-SOAP played an important role in Lopez Martinez’s path to college, she said. She walked away with a $2,500 scholarship to add to a generous financial aid package from her college.
“It’s tough being the first to go to college,” she said. “I’m the little girl. My mom’s had a hard time letting me go.”
But in her own, understated way, Teresa Lopez is immensely proud of her daughter.
“I didn’t want her to go,” Lopez said, her daughter translating for her. “But if she’s happy, I’m happy.”
For Lopez Martinez, graduating from college is a way of showing gratitude to those who have helped her along the way.
“It’s been my dream since I was a little girl to go to college,” Lopez Martinez said. “I want to give back to my community. I want to give back to my parents.”