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Lessley Martinez poses for a portrait in her cap and gown Wednesday, June 2, 2021, at West Valley High School in Yakima, Wash. 

That old chestnut about bravery — that it’s not lack of fear; it’s being afraid and doing it anyway — is true in Lessley Martinez’ case.

She was plenty scared when she left home in Colima, Mexico, to move in with an aunt and uncle in Yakima. She was 15 and, though she was born in Texas and lived in the United States until she was 4, she barely spoke English at all. But the United States held opportunities Mexico didn’t. Here she could go to college, get a good job and have a better life. She could help her family.

So, while her parents and brothers stayed in Mexico, Martinez moved 2,500 miles away to a place where she didn’t speak the language and enrolled as a sophomore at West Valley High School.

“I was really scared and nervous, because I was leaving my family,” she said. “But my heart was telling me to keep going and make my dream come true and help my family, too.”

Now 18, Martinez graduates this week and is headed to Montana State University on a virtually full scholarship, which will be bolstered by her National Guard scholarship. She’ll study criminology and psychology while serving in the Guard, all with an eye toward a career in police work.

“I want to be a detective,” Martinez said. “Since I was really little I always wanted to be a police officer, helping people.”

She got to this point with plenty of help. Her aunt and uncle, Charles and Elizabeth Dorrell, made her feel at home “from day one,” she said. And her classmates were overwhelmingly supportive. There were some who ridiculed her lack of English but many more who understood, sympathized with and supported Martinez. Her fellow cadets in the West Valley Army Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps were particularly supportive, she said.

“I had a great high school experience,” Martinez said. “I had so many friends.”

That doesn’t mean it was always easy.

“My first month, honestly I was thinking, ‘What if I don’t graduate? What if I don’t make it?’” she said. “I was lost. But my family and friends just pushed me, and I started to work harder.”

Martinez joined the JROTC and the school forensics club, eventually becoming president of the latter. Her English improved quickly, in part through hard work and in part through the organic process of just spending time around English speakers.

“I knew in my heart I had the potential,” she said. “I just had to trust myself.”

For motivation, all she had to do was think of her family back home. Her parents, Marisol and Jesus Martinez, and her twin brothers could use the sort of financial help a well-paying career in the United States can offer. She hopes to start sending money soon, and ultimately she hopes to bring them all back to the United States to enjoy the same opportunity she has.

“I’m just looking forward to helping my parents, giving them a better life,” Martinez said.

Her mother is in town this week for graduation, but she hasn’t seen her father since leaving home.

“I plan to go visit him as soon as possible,” Martinez said. “They told me they’re proud of me. They believe in me, and now that college is coming they’re even more sure that I can make it.”