Students Rising AboveBy Elizabeth Cook

SAN JOSE (CBS SF) — For an adult, losing time with a parent can be one of life’s most heartbreaking experiences. But for a child, such a loss can seem nearly impossible to recover from.

As a young teen, Nayeli Martinez lost time with her dad just when she needed him the most. Now as she grows and heals from that past trauma, the 20-year-old UC Riverside junior has been using her online pandemic study time to reflect on where she has been and where her life is headed.

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“I’ve definitely been more in tune with, like, who I think I really am. I’ve been being more honest with myself, with others,” said Martinez. “Working through things on my own. Getting more in touch with the way I react to things, my emotions my mental state … just accepting things about how I am as an introvert.”

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Despite her reserved manner, Martinez shined in high school at San Jose’s Luis Valdez Leadership Academy, as a top scholar, a support for her friends in the classroom, and as a player for her school’s basketball team.

“Basketball is amazing. I love playing basketball,’ declared Martinez in 2019. “Being able to have like that distraction for me, allowed me to stay focused.”

She was focused at the time but also hurting. That’s because Martinez’ father – her support system – had been absent from her life for around a year. He went to jail just as Martinez started high school. It was an experience she was still reeling from long after his release, when KPIX 5 first spoke to the teen.

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“You know at first it’s so hard to believe,” said Martinez at the time. “You know you don’t ever picture someone that you are supposed to look up to doing something like that bad.”

Back then, Martinez leaned into her grief and her story, sharing it openly with others. It was a decision the now 20-year-old Martinez says helped move her forward out of high school, on to college and into adulthood. It was a transition that changed her worldview.

“It’s kind of been a shift in the way that I’m not just like his younger, like, little girl or his daughter,” said Martinez of her relationship with her dad. ” I’m older now. I can make my own decisions. And I understand what’s best for me.”

Her dad has moved forward, too.

“I think his time incarcerated definitely helped,” said Martinez. “It put a lot into perspective for him. It cleared up, like, what was at stake, his children, his life here. Everything that he has built here for us … what he has yet to do and see from us. He has changed his ways in order to ensure he is able to see me graduate college.”

Martinez’ college graduation is just a few years away. She wants to be an educator and is eyeing Stanford for graduate school. And her relationship with her father is now a source of strength for a young woman setting her own path.

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“I enjoy being on my own. Taking my life, and, like, ownership of it,” said Martinez. “At the end of the day, I did realize that this is my college career … this is what I am going to be doing with my life. And right now the only person that can make these things happen for myself is myself.”

Elizabeth Cook