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He pushed himself from farm work to nursing. At 27, he died from the coronavirus.

Miguel Martinez Jr. found his calling at USF. Now, there’s a memorial scholarship in his name.
Miguel Martinez Jr. had to start working at 14. He's pictured here at the National Zoo in Washington D.C., where he lived for six weeks during an internship. He graduated from the University of South Florida with a bachelor's degree in nursing.
Miguel Martinez Jr. had to start working at 14. He's pictured here at the National Zoo in Washington D.C., where he lived for six weeks during an internship. He graduated from the University of South Florida with a bachelor's degree in nursing. [ Courtesy Maria Concepcion Martinez ]
Published Mar. 1
Updated Mar. 1

His first semester of college was just weeks away. After a year of preparations, Miguel Martinez Jr. worried about making it through the University of South Florida.

Since his senior year at Brandon High School, he’d worked with Ruby Luis through the College Assistance Migrant Program, eagerly learning about college, what he’d need to do to get in, even visiting a place he’d never imagined. He graduated from high school with honors and traveled that summer with his family to Michigan for the blueberry harvest.

By the time he got back, he wondered:

What if he didn’t have enough money?

What if he’d have to drop out?

What if it all was too much?

But he went, maybe not at first even for himself. He became a nurse.

Mr. Martinez was 27 when he died last summer from the coronavirus.

This month, his friends and family started a memorial scholarship in his name at the University of South Florida to help people like him — first-generation children of farm workers — move from working in fields to building careers.

Maria Concepcion Martinez with son Miguel Martinez, center, his siblings and a cousin.
Maria Concepcion Martinez with son Miguel Martinez, center, his siblings and a cousin. [ Courtesy Maria Concepcion Martinez ]

School, work, repeat

In Valrico, where his family lived in the early 2000s, Mr. Martinez’s father learned English. He took his GED. He started his own business.

Echale ganas al estudio,” he told his eldest.

Focus on school. Make something of yourself.

Mr. Martinez was just 14 when his father died from cancer. The high school freshman had to work with his mom harvesting strawberries, tomatoes, cucumbers and watermelon when he wasn’t in school.

For his sister, Elena Martinez, he became like a father.

“He was so dedicated, so motivated to be the best that he could, not just for himself but to set an example to me and my younger brothers.”

Miguel Martinez Jr., far left, with his brothers, uncle and cousin.
Miguel Martinez Jr., far left, with his brothers, uncle and cousin. [ Courtesy Maria Concepcion Martinez ]

Be better

Mr. Martinez could talk to anyone and made friends everywhere. But he had no examples of what success looked like in college.

After that first year, though, he started to believe he belonged. Mr. Martinez was nominated for a six-week internship in Washington, D.C. When he came home, he started mentoring other migrant students. He took up leadership positions and joined campus clubs and activities.

Before his cousin, Eduardo Salgado, started his freshman year at USF, Mr. Martinez gave the campus tour, walking him from class to class.

“He was that role model that a lot of us needed.”

And not just with school.

Israel Martinez is 10 years younger than his big brother.

For several months during middle school, when Israel was having a rough time, he lived with Mr. Martinez. They’d work out together, go on runs and end up racing each other.

Israel doesn’t plan to follow his brother to college. But he will follow his example.

“I don’t really get along with school that much,” he said. “I’m trying to take another route to get as successful as he was...he always told me to be better. Just be better.”

Miguel Martinez Jr. with his mother, brothers and sisters after graduating from USF.
Miguel Martinez Jr. with his mother, brothers and sisters after graduating from USF. [ Courtesy Veronica Valencia ]

A house, a trip, a future

Mr. Martinez graduated with his bachelor’s degree in nursing in 2016 and started his first job at a hospital in Fort Myers.

He tried to come home once a month.

After his mom had a baby girl with medical issues, Mr. Martinez moved to the pediatric intensive care unit at Golisano Children’s Hospital. He wanted to help his mom however he could with his sister.

He planned to buy his mom a house — one like she’d always wanted with room for everyone and a little land.

He wanted to take his whole family to the beach on vacation.

He talked about renting a boat.

And someday, he wanted to go back to school for his master’s.

Miguel Martinez Jr., in the back, with his cousin, Eduardo Salgado, center, and friends at Salgado's graduation.
Miguel Martinez Jr., in the back, with his cousin, Eduardo Salgado, center, and friends at Salgado's graduation. [ Courtesy Maria Concepcion Martinez ]

A little help for his friends

His friends need to raise $25,000 so the Miguel Martinez Jr. Memorial Scholarship can become endowed through the USF Foundation. They’re up to more than $6,000. The money will provide a $1,000 scholarship to one student each year.

It’s not much, said Salgado, Mr. Martinez’s cousin. But it will help kids who have goals like his inch toward them.

“Miguel couldn’t have done it by himself,” Salgado said.

He had the support of his family, his father’s words, and people who understood where he came from and where he wanted to go.

He still had a lot left to do.

But in less than three decades, he did the work of generations.

Miguel Martinez Jr. was the first member of his family to graduate from college. "He set that expectation," said cousin Eduardo Salgado. "He set a bar for people to reach for...nothing is impossible when you set your mind to it."
Miguel Martinez Jr. was the first member of his family to graduate from college. "He set that expectation," said cousin Eduardo Salgado. "He set a bar for people to reach for...nothing is impossible when you set your mind to it." [ Courtesy Veronica Valencia ]

Poynter Institute researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story.

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