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High School Valedictorians Have High Aspirations

Jun 4, 2014
Originally published on June 4, 2014 2:31 pm

This week we are speaking to high school valedictorians from across the country. Today we speak with 17-year old Leilanie Martinez.

Martinez is graduating from South Gate High School in Los Angeles county. She will attend U.C. Berkeley next year and plans to major in political science.

That’s because she eventually wants to come back to South Gate to run for mayor of Los Angeles.

“My first act would be to have a day of volunteering,” she told Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson, “where all the citizens would come out and volunteer one day.”

Note: The third interview in this series will air later this week.

Interview Highlights: Leilanie Martinez

On what she wants her classmates to take from her valedictorian speech

“I definitely love South Gate High School, and I think I really want students to take on the message from my speech to go on and make the world a a better place. I feel like everyone has their talents, everyone has their strengths, and I feel as if everyone can make a difference in this world by just helping out one another. And I think I really want people to come back to the roots and come back to kind of make South Gate a better place.”

On what has motivated her to be successful

“All throughout high school, middle school, I was everywhere. Definitely, I love leadership. I’m in Girl Scouts, I sold all the Girl Scout cookies and everything. But definitely, you know, I think I was mainly motivated by wanting to set the positive example for my younger siblings. Definitely, you know, they’re very young. I’m the oldest. They range anywhere from two in June, and I have a little seven-year-old and a soon-to-be 10-year-old, and definitely, you know, my siblings are my main motivators, you know? I want them to know that they can be as involved and help out the community as much as possible within their clubs and organizations, but at the end, academics is always number one, and I wanted to make sure, you know, I gained this valedictorian status to show them that anything’s possible. You don’t necessarily need to be very smart to begin with, but if you study and if you apply yourself, you can do anything you want to do.

On what she would do as mayor of her hometown

“I want to make sure I come back to my community and I want to make sure I come back to the city I came from, and I want to make sure I advocate for them and, you know, definitely work with them and try to advocate for, you know, rights, like for others less fortunate, you know, homeless youth. I want to be able to make sure that, you know, education is still working to its tip-top. I want to make sure that, you know, our society’s always improving, always exceeding expectations. So definitely, I want to someday run for mayor, and hopefully, you guys can support me.

Guest

  • Leilanie Martinez, valedictorian at South Gate High School in South Gate, California.
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JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:

And as high school students graduate, we wanted to talk to some of the people at the top. So we've invited several valedictorians from around the country to join us this week. Yesterday we spoke with Jordan Thomas, who's the valedictorian at University High School in Newark, New Jersey.

JORDAN THOMAS: My core group of friends always knew that at the end the day there's a time to have fun, there's a time to party, there's a time to go out, to go to the movies. But at the end of the day, make sure that the homework is done. Make sure it's done right, and make sure you're ready for the test the next day.

HOBSON: Good advice. And many of you enjoyed hearing it from Jordan. R.L. Goodman wrote at hereandnow.org, wow, this kid is 17? When I was that age, I was barely beyond grunting. Well, today we are joined by another valedictorian, Leilanie Martinez. She's a senior at Southgate High School in Los Angeles.

Leilanie, welcome and congratulations. And what message are you going to be giving to your fellow students in your valedictorian speech?

LEILANIE MARTINEZ: I think I really want students to take on the message from my speech basically to go out and make the world a better place. I feel like everyone has their talents, everyone has their strengths. And I feel as everyone can make a difference in this world by just helping out one another. And I think, I really want people to come back to their roots and come back to - kind of make Southgate a better place.

HOBSON: How did you get to be top of the class?

MARTINEZ: I think it had a lot to do with my brothers and sisters. I was very active with them all throughout high school. Middle school, I was everywhere. Definitely, I love leadership. I'm in Girl Scouts. I sold all the Girl Scout cookies and everything.

But definitely, you know, I think I was mainly motivated by wanting to set the positive example for my younger siblings. Definitely, you know, they're very young. I'm the oldest. They range anywhere from 2 in June, and I have a little 7-year-old and a soon-to-be 10-year-old, and definitely, you know, my siblings, I think, are my main motivators, you know.

I want to make sure that they know that they can be as involved and help out the community as much as possible within their clubs and organizations. But at the end, academics is always number one. And I wanted to make sure, you know, I gained this valedictorian status to show them that anything's possible. You don't necessarily need to be very smart to begin with. But if you study and if you apply yourself, you can do anything you want to do.

HOBSON: Well, and one of the things that you've been doing is you've been volunteering at a homeless shelter.

MARTINEZ: Yes, definitely. Actually earned my gold award through doing that. And I basically went to the homeless shelter. I told them about my project. I wanted to have a study corner away from all the distractions like TV and all the noise - and it's on the side. So basically the children can come and study in this corner, just specifically geared towards their education.

And actually, because we established that little corner, you know, we added an office desk, all new furniture, added school supplies. It's nearby the main office area so they're being supervised. And something really cool is that the shelter's now eligible for the School on Wheels program.

And basically the students can come, get tutoring from that service. Also what we have in the living room, is that we kind of established a little - kind of living room fun time. And we have, like, a wall to post up all their artwork. We have educational games, books, just coloring items next to the TV. So while the parents are watching TV, the kids can engage themselves in something educational.

I really wanted to be able to give back to children that are going through a rough time because, you know, definitely being homeless and having to deal with all the problems that are associated with that and not having a great time - I think these resources are there for them to utilize and try to get motivated and inspire to keep their education on track while they're going through all these issues.

HOBSON: What was your biggest challenge in high school?

MARTINEZ: I don't know. I would have to say probably maintaining my life at the same time. Definitely, you know, as student body president, you know, you have a big load on your shoulders. As valedictorian, you know, you have the academic load. And I set very high expectations for myself to try to maintain everything.

I wanted to do School Psych Council chairperson. I'm the first student ever to do that in my high school. I mean, that was a great honor as well. Being able to allocate different funds for the budget. Definitely, I was very good multitasker, and, you know, I definitely wanted to make sure I still have a social life with my friends. So I think my biggest challenge was trying to juggle it all.

HOBSON: Now, people that are listening to you speak may not be surprised that you're going to be majoring in political science. You're very good at staying on message. You're going to go to UC-Berkeley. Tell us why you want to do that. What would you like to do later in life?

MARTINEZ: Hopefully one day - everyone remember my name, Leilanie Martinez. I'm going to run for mayor of Los Angeles. Don't forget, don't forget. But definitely, you know, I want to make sure I come back to my community, and I want to make sure I come back to the city I came from. And I want to make sure I advocate for them and definitely, you know, work with them and try to advocate for, you know, rights like for others less fortunate, you know, homeless youth.

I want to be able to make sure, you know, that education is still working to its tiptop. I want to make sure that, you know, our society's, you know, always improving, always exceeding expectations.

HOBSON: What do you tell your fellow students who are not as ambitious as you are?

MARTINEZ: Don't give up. I would have to say a lot of the times a lot of people sometimes they aren't ambitious because they don't feel, you know, that they can meet up to par. Sometimes they feel like oh, you know, I'm just me.

But I always like to think, you know, everyone has their own talent. Everyone is here for a reason. At times, you know, you're like, sometimes when you fail at something or do not succeed, you're like, oh, it's faith, it's telling me otherwise. But I think everything's a challenge. And you just need to kind of tackle it all head on and just hope for the best.

HOBSON: Did you grow up in a wealthy family or how were your means as you were growing up?

MARTINEZ: My means. I wouldn't say it's wealthy - middle-class. Definitely, you know, my parents were always supportive. I didn't have a lot of money. I actually am working right now. And, you know, I want to be able to sustain myself.

And, you know, definitely college - I don't really expect my parents to pay for my schooling. So I kind of - as relying on scholarships as well. And definitely, you know, I'm not afraid to take loans because I know education is an investment in your future. And I'm optimistic about that.

HOBSON: If you could give a message from yourself now in 2014, to, you know, 10-year-old Leilanie Martinez, what would you tell her?

MARTINEZ: I would say, don't give up. I know that's my little saying for today. But I would have to say, there's really no regrets. I didn't have any regrets in my life. I don't think I was unhappy throughout my years. I think I experienced everything to the fullest.

I would say appreciate your friends more. A lot of my friends, I've known them since middle school, and they've known me since the chubby little girl with no braces on. And I would have to say, you know, I would say value your friends, value every moment in that schooling. A lot of times I think a lot of kids want to grow up and I'm like no, I'm going to graduate. I'm leaving the house. So I would say, you know, take time as it comes. Live life to the fullest.

HOBSON: Leilanie Martinez is the valedictorian at Southgate High School in Los Angeles. Leilanie, thanks so much for joining us and best of luck to you.

MARTINEZ: Of course, thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.