INSPIRED. Nery Villalba Martinez, Success Was "Worth The Struggle"

INSPIRED. Nery Villalba Martinez, Success Was "Worth The Wait"

There was a time less than a year ago when Lee Early College senior Nery Villalba Martinez wondered if she'd be able to graduate. 

Not because of her performance in the classroom – her work there was by all accounts exemplary, and the fact that she was accepted to five colleges and earned nearly $100,000 in scholarship money is a testament to that.

But a tough situation at home meant that the young woman who is the daughter of immigrants and now set to be the first in her family to attend college had to work extra hard to strike a balance between school and home. 

“My mom was pregnant and had my baby brother prematurely,” Martinez explained. “And it got complicated. She had to stay in the hospital with him for 10 months, and I stayed at home with my other brother and my dad.”

Principal Kisha Derr handing Nery her diploma.

That tough situation essentially put Martinez in charge of a household even as she worked to finish her high school career. She graduated from Lee Early College on Thursday with a high school diploma and an associate degree and will enter UNC Pembroke in the fall as a junior to study business administration.

“At first I was debating whether I would be able to graduate,” she said. “But at the end, all the hard work I was able to put in, it was worth the struggle.” 

For Martinez, the knowledge that college can be difficult to pay for in this day and age gave her an early drive to do well in school and accumulate as many opportunities as possible. In addition to UNC Pembroke, she was accepted to Lenior-Rhyne University, Western Carolina, Campbell and Wingate – and offered handsome scholarships by each.

Nery's graduation cap at the Lee Early College graduation, which reads "para mi mama y papa gracias."

Nery's graduation cap at the Lee Early College graduation, which reads "para mi mama y papa gracias."

“When students get accepted to colleges, we ask them to come in so we can take a picture and put it on social media,” said Lee Early College Principal Kisha Derr. “It seemed like she was in here all the time. She's just a really sweet girl. She's really quiet and she works really hard.” 

Martinez said she chose Pembroke for college because she'd taken a campus tour there during her freshman year and liked what she saw. She hopes to use what she learns studying business administration to help her dad and sister with the family photography business.

“I wanted to go into that field so that I could help my family, and help the business grow and expand,” she said, adding that she also plans to study forensic science as a minor. “I want to do nursing also.” 

Nery receiving her associate degree from Central Carolina Community College.

Martinez said that Lee Early College being different than a traditional high school was a big help in not only doing so well in school, but also in overcoming her challenges.

“I think it's a great school,” she said. “It helped me a lot to grow, and the best part was getting the college experience. The teachers are all really nice, and they help you a lot, especially one on one.” 

Sarah Kitchens was Martinez's senior advisor and said she'd done a wonderful job succeeding in school while dealing with personal challenges.

“She's definitely handled it like a champ,” Kitchens said. “Her education is really important to her, and that's why she pushed so hard for scholarship money so early.”

Nery's graduation cap at the CCCC graduation.

Martinez's graduation cap at the Central Carolina Community College graduation.

For Martinez, having staff like Kitchens, Derr and others available to guide her forward made it all possible. 

“They were there and listened to everything that was going on,” she said. “I couldn't have gotten there without them.”

She admits to being a little nervous about entering college as a junior, but said she knows her time at Lee Early College – and her proven ability to handle diversity – have more than prepared her. 

“I know it’s going to be hard,” she said. “But I know I’m going to able to do well in the classes.”


Inspired is a digital digest published each week during the academic year by Lee County Schools to highlight accomplishments of students, faculty and staff. 

All Inspired articles are available online at www.lee.k12.nc.us, and if you have any story ideas, please send them to inspired@lee.k12.nc.us.