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America's top universities wanted him. How this L.A. teen of modest means earned a wealth of options

The first response arrived in February, from Cal State Bakersfield.

“It’s a good feeling when you open a letter and it says, ‘Congratulations,’” says Noe Martinon.

It was the first of many.

Next, Martinon got accepted to Cal State Fullerton, and that was followed by great news from UC Irvine. Not only did he make the cut, but he was invited into the school’s honors program.

Martinon, 18, is a senior at Santee Education Complex, south of the Santa Monica freeway and downtown L.A. This is a neighborhood of people who pay rent, do the city’s essential uncelebrated work and pray their children rise above the many barriers that are part of the landscape.

Martinon’s parents went only as far as sixth grade in Mexico. Victor Martinon is a janitor at a real estate company, Irma Palma is a seamstress in a clothing factory.

The family in Apartment 3

For 17 years, the family, including Noe’s 19-year-old sister, Giselle, has lived in a studio apartment. To reach it, you pass through a common courtyard with a statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Inside Apartment 3, two sets of bunk beds stand in a space that is both bedroom and living room for parents, son and daughter.

On a table between the beds is a television, but the TV is often dark because the same table is the desk where Noe and his sister, a community college student, do their homework, sometimes deep into the night.

While the others sleep just a few feet from him, Noe says, his mother often stays awake until he’s done. He thinks about the hours of sleep she has sacrificed in a show of support.

“It gave me more motivation,” says Noe.

Noe’s work in middle school was nothing special. He wanted to go to Orthopaedic Medical Magnet School, like his sister, who wants to be a nurse. But he didn’t get in. He settled on Santee, one of the Partnership schools begun by former L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. One requirement is that parents become personally engaged and attend workshops on how to best support their children’s education.

Noe’s parents were happy to comply. His father began pushing years ago, when Noe and Giselle were tykes, requiring them to read for at least 30 minutes every day. In the morning, Noe said, his father wakes up, goes across the street and buys two newspapers, and they read together at breakfast.

‘A real bright kid’

On a recent evening at their home, Noe’s parents told me they wanted their son to pick a college that was both a good school and a good fit for him. If the school happened to be close to home, great. But their first priority was that he groom himself for a bright future.

Noe wants to study government and economics and maybe become a teacher or principal. Wherever he goes to college, he said, “I would come back to Los Angeles and try to give something back … and help my parents.”

In his sophomore and junior years at Santee, Noe’s work at school drew notice from teachers. They encouraged him to take Advanced Placement classes — calculus, literature, government, politics, psychology — and he hung out with like-minded kids. His buddy Oscar Castillo said they thought of themselves as nerds or geeks, in a good way, and set high goals for themselves.

“I think he rubbed off on me,” Castillo said of Noe. Castillo, like his pal, was accepted to UC Irvine.

“I’ve been in education 20 years, and I don’t think I’ve met a kid with his academic strengths when it comes to math, to writing, to world languages,” said Principal Martin Gomez. “He’s just a real bright kid.”

Noe’s Advanced Placement literature teacher, Joe Zeccola, said his joke about Noe was that the student didn’t need the teacher.

“His fluency with language is that of a graduate student,” said Zeccola, who showed me an essay Noe wrote on Shakespeare’s “Henry VIII,” with a closing rumination on the character Cardinal Wolsey.

“Shakespeare teaches us that we cannot allow pride to run amok within us because it can corrupt us and everything that is lost will be impossible to recover,” wrote Noe, who told me that typically, once he’s done with a draft, he spends two or three hours polishing it.

Humility defines Noe, according to Jerry Olague, his Advanced Placement Spanish teacher last year. In class discussions on differences in the cultures of Latin countries, Noe modestly nurtured classmates, Olague said, displaying skills that could make him a great teacher one day.

“I started telling him he was capable of scoring a perfect 5 on the AP Spanish test,” said Olague.

Noe had doubts, but no lack of inspiration. Last year, of the 163,000 students in the world who took the test, only 108 got perfect scores. Noe was one of them.

And the college possibilities opened wide, thanks in part to the nonprofit One Voice, which counsels low-income scholars and helps with the application and placement process.

The acceptance letters flow

Between February and the end of March, Noe’s mailbag was filled with acceptance letters and offers of grants —paying up to 90% of his education — from elite schools big and small. Connecticut College wanted him, as did Williams, Hamilton, Whitman, Grinnell, UCLA, UC Berkeley, UC San Diego and on and on. Of the 20 schools he applied to, 17 accepted him.

He got into two Ivy League schools, Cornell and Dartmouth, and the latter flew him to the campus two weeks ago for a visit that was Noe’s first trip to the East Coast.

At various times, Noe was close to choosing UCLA, then Dartmouth, then Pomona. He was nervous, excited, anxious. He agonized over the advantages and disadvantages of each, of being close to home, of being a continent away. A young man of modest means, he was awed and maybe a bit overwhelmed by his wealth of options.

In the end, he liked the prestige of Dartmouth and the feel of Pomona, a first-rate school close to home, and he liked that Pomona students can take classes at the other four colleges in the Claremont consortium. But last Saturday, with a decision deadline just two days away, UC Berkeley was back in the mix.

He woke up Sunday without an answer. His sister, friends and parents offered counsel.

“The last thing my sister said was, ‘I know that when you make the choice, you’re going to make the right one,’” said Noe.

Making his choice

On Sunday afternoon, the suspense ended. In a moment of clarity, Noe knew which school was the best fit, and he didn’t hesitate.

He grabbed his computer, went online, and committed.

To Pomona College.

His proud parents congratulated him. His sister high-fived him.

“That’s our version of a hug,” said Noe, who was relieved, but too busy with what’s left of high school to do much celebrating.

“I feel good,” he said Thursday on the Santee campus, with graduation fast approaching and a new adventure about to begin.

And after Pomona, Noe said, there will be graduate school.

He’d love to go to Stanford.

To read the article in Spanish, click here

Get more of Steve Lopez's work and follow him on Twitter @LATstevelopez

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