A Head for Numbers, a Heart for Persistence

Vanessa Abella Martinez

When talking to Vanessa Abella-Martinez, it’s clear she is reflective and astute. She exudes an air of patience and foresight that belies her 17 years—traits that align perfectly with her chosen major of finance at UW-Green Bay. Additionally, Abella-Martinez admits, “I like numbers.” And if those numbers are associated with accumulating wealth (for herself and clients), all the better. Life, in her view, is like a well-balanced portfolio of pursuits. She recognizes that wise investments can extend beyond money to include a college education. This is why the cost of education is a significant concern for her, and she has embraced the growth opportunity presented by the GEAR UP Rising Phoenix program, saying, “I knew I was going to pay for college myself, so once I knew it would help me save, I seized it.”

Moreover, Abella-Martinez appreciates the rarity of being simultaneously a high school and college student—an opportunity that often does not present itself. “I found the program really interesting and was eligible for it,” she shares. Despite her thoughtful nature, she made a snap decision to join the program. “I actually did it super last minute,” she recalls. Abella-Martinez crafted her admissions essay on her iPhone during a bus ride home from school. Two years later, this last-minute decision continues to significantly impact her future.

The GEAR UP Rising Phoenix program is an innovative educational initiative that gives high school students an opportunity to earn their high school diploma and an Associate of Arts and Sciences degree by taking college courses, fully funded by the Wisconsin GEAR UP grant for eligible students. This unique program accelerates students’ academic journeys and positions them to enter university as juniors, providing a significant head start to higher education. Students like Abella-Martinez commit time, effort, and dedication, and they are in turn supported with enthusiasm by their high school, UW-Green Bay and GEAR UP partners. She is a student at Preble High School.

Kara Koerner, her UW-Green Bay Success Coach, has been instrumental in her journey. “Kara’s really amazing!” Abella-Martinez says. “I loved her as my success coach because she’s always checking up on me, helping, and supporting me.”

Their mutual admiration reflects the positive dynamics between students and mentors. Koerner herself is immensely proud of her students, acknowledging, “Many of these students have gone through so much, just even in two years.”

Abella-Martinez’s daily routine underscores her commitment and resilience. She starts early, ensuring her younger brother and sister are up and ready for school, all the while carefully managing not to wake her mother who works nights. Then she juggles her coursework with the additional responsibilities that come with being a full-time student. Despite her packed schedule, Abella-Marinez commits to her part-time job at Pick N Save, balancing work hours with schoolwork.

Her parents, originating from Mexico with no college experience, deeply value education as a pivotal pathway for their children’s future. Her mother works nights at a factory that makes pizza dough, and her father splits his time between their home and a small farm where he raises cattle. “My parents always say, ‘We didn’t have the chance to go to college, but we want you to have that opportunity. It’s your ticket to a better life.'”

Abella-Martinez is not the only member of the family embracing higher education. Her two older twin sisters are in their senior year at UW-Green Bay, which will result in three siblings graduating in the same school year. Their experiences have made it easier for her to make the collegiate leap. Koerner recognized her resolve immediately, “When you get to know Vanessa, you understand immediately. She is such a smart, hardworking student who has learned to self-advocate so well throughout this program. She’s got a really strong support system with her family.”