A pair of Union City High School students are prepared to leave their urban environment for a little ivy. The district recently announced that seniors Joan Martinez, 17, and Giselle Pena, 17, have received early admission to Columbia, a competitive Ivy League school in New York City. Also, Isaac Ortega, 18, the class valedictorian, will head to another top college: the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
Ortega, Martinez (ranked eighth in his graduating class), and Pena, (ranked 14th), are part of the school’s Academy for Enrichment and Advancement, which holds classes for scholars interested in science and engineering.
All three students, the children of immigrants, are excited to head into a prestigious and intense learning environment. At least two of them were raised by single parents whose sacrifices they said were factors in their success.
“When I found out, I cried,” Pena, who plans to study civil engineering at Columbia, said about decision day during a recent sit down with her peers.
“I was actually at the hospital helping my mom with her work, and then we were driving,” she said. “I checked my phone, and when I realized it, we had to stop. It’s really great, because not only do I know what college I’m going to, it’s a really good school, and the financial aid is pretty generous. It was number one on my list.”
Not only is Pena an honors student with a 4.4. GPA, she has won several awards and prizes for her chemistry research. And even before she officially says hello to Columbia this year, she’s already made her mark on the campus, having participated in engineering-related programs there, at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, and at Farleigh Dickinson University. As a member of the school’s Hispanic Bar Association, she is also interested in a possible dual career in law.
For Martinez, finding out his early acceptance was “surreal. Because the whole time when I was waiting, I was thinking, ‘Oh, I’m probably not going to get in.’ That same day, I was at Dunkin Donuts with my girlfriend, eating casually, and I was like, ‘Oh, it’s time to check.’ And I was like, ‘Ehh, let me just give this a shot, whatever.’ I opened it, and then I read it and I was like, ‘No way.’ I honestly could not believe it.”
He added, “This has been my dream school for years. It felt like a weight lifted off my shoulders.”
Martinez, who has a 4.5 GPA, will study chemical engineering at Columbia. He’s performed extensive laboratory research at the school, work which earned him first place at the Regional American Chemical Society’s North Jersey section.
“I didn’t know I was going to find out over the winter break,” Ortega said. “My mother had texted me that there was mail for me. I got home, and there was this aluminum tube with MIT on the side. I opened it and confetti fell out. I was like, ‘What is this? Are they trying to get me to buy something?’ So I pulled more stuff out and there was an admission letter-MIT. Pretty nice.”
Ortega’s accomplishments this year are equally as impressive as his peers. He has a 4.68 GPA and is an AP Scholar.
During his time at the high school, he’s become part of numerous honor programs, including the National Honor Society; he’s also been named a National Merit Scholar and a National Hispanic Scholar. However, his driving force is reaching a title that will take years to earn. “Since I was a kid, I’ve always wanted to win a Nobel Prize,” Ortega said. “So these are steps in the road – real small goals to the big goal.”
He would like to win the prize for dark matter research, perhaps ironic, given that he admitted to having flunked out of physics class.
“Basically, scientists have no idea what it is,” he said. “It’s this idea that there’s anti-matter. Positive, negative charges. The universe is expanding at a certain rate, and they say that the idea comes from dark energy and dark matter,” he added. “They have absolutely no idea what it is. And that’s why I’d like to study it, because I’d be pioneering.”
Martinez cited a very special someone in his life for bringing him to this moment. “My mom,” he said.
“She’s an inspiration. Seeing her struggle in this country. Most of our parents are immigrants from other countries. They could’ve got a degree over there, but that’s not really worth much here. So they’re in jobs that they didn’t really study for and just doing it to help us, so we can survive.”
Pena, who, like Martinez, was raised by a single mother, also cited her as motivation to achieve.
“It’s a really good school, and the financial aid is pretty generous. It was number one on my list.” -Giselle Pena
“I guess I can say the same,” she said. “Growing up, my mom’s a single mother, she raised two kids. It took her six years to get a bachelor’s degree, because she had two kids already, and so balancing that out, doing jobs, part-time.”
“She did so much, and when I was growing up I knew there was financial trouble. I knew rent had to be due. Child support was never given on time; it was never given at all at times. Her pushing herself towards a greater goal. I knew that. The position that my mom was in was better than the one my grandmother was in; I want to be in a better position than my mom was.”
Pena added that, “I feel like if I never applied myself to school, then I failed her.”
High school life ensured the road to success was anything but easy for the students. They shared their most difficult challenges since entering high school.
Ortega narrowed it to attempting to found and run a Physics Club for the school. “Because I do not consider myself anything remotely close to an actual leader,” he said. “And so it was new territory. You have to realize that you have to divert responsibility, and the club lives and dies by you.”
But, he admitted, “It’s going way better now. I think I’m now starting to get the groove of how to run a club.”
He’s also a standout member of the school’s swim team, and also ran cross country until an injury ended the latter excursion.
“It was difficult to have to balance that with the schoolwork,” he said, “because that was the same year I was taking three APs. The school usually doesn’t allow that. I’d come home, really late—like 7:30 and have two to three hours of homework.”
As caption of the school’s cross country and track team (and MVP), Martinez said his toughest high school challenge has been keeping up those A’s, along with those miles “It’s been balancing running all year round and classes,” he said.
“I think it’s just time management,” Pena said. She’s previously won first place twice in the Hudson County Mock Trial competition.
“I’ve done mock trial for four years. You practice your oral skills, public speaking, consistently try to present yourself with new material, presenting your cases and talking to your team, as well as handling school work. It was a lot for me. And I broke down from homework that also needed the same degree of my attention; and also balancing my life at home because I would have to clean. But over the years, like, right now, I feel like I have a good balance now.”
Before returning to their classwork, the students cited another person critical in their success—Nadia Makar, district supervisor for the AEA’s STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) program.
“Our administrator, Ms. Markar, really does a great job of pushing the kids into pursuing careers in STEM,” Ortega said, “and it can be argued that she holds the majority share of the responsibility for a lot of students here getting into good schools.”
“Ms. Makar is honestly the best,” Martinez added. “If you ever want to go anywhere, she’s the person to have by your side, because without her, none of this would be possible. Research, anything.”
Hannington Dia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org