To attain balance in life is a challenging prospect for many of us to achieve. For recent Rowan College of South Jersey (RCSJ) graduate, Lesley Martinez, her attempts at finding equanimity succeeded after she experienced many ups and downs, moments of self-reflection, and acquiring the ability to give herself grace, especially during the toughest of times.
Martinez, a 30-year-old Vineland resident and Air Force veteran, was honored for her numerous accomplishments during RCSJ–Cumberland’s recent 4th Annual Commencement Ceremony. She, along with Cody McMahan (Army), represented the College’s Military Services program and RCSJ’s Class of 2023 as flag bearers at graduation.
The Criminal Justice major was recognized for winning multiple awards including the Global War on Terrorism Service Medal, the Humanitarian Service Medal, the USAF NCO PME Graduate Ribbon, and the New Jersey Merit Award Ribbon.
Martinez, a Security Forces Member with the 177th Fighter Wing New Jersey National Guard in Egg Harbor Township, is also a single mother of two. During her journey to earn an RCSJ degree, she met many challenges with courage and determination.
“It’s been so many obstacles,” said Martinez. “It’s hard to navigate through life in general. A big challenge for me was learning how to make sure that all areas of my life were getting almost the same amount of attention.”
While in the process of obtaining her education, the future law student was deployed to Kuwait. She also assisted Afghanistan refugees during Operation Freedom Sentinel in 2021.
According to Martinez, her assignment was to help Afghans escape the Taliban as chaos from the war ensued.
“They left their country with absolutely nothing,” she said. “I was on the planes with them. We were providing them [with] food, fresh water, [and] shelter. We gave the kids diapers, formulas, bottles, clothes … Our mission was to make sure that they were provided with at least the basic essentials.”
Although she was performing her sworn duty to rescue the country’s civilians, Martinez’s deployments caused a negative impact on her studies.
“I was [enrolled] in school and I completely failed my classes,” she said. “We were on 24-hour ops. I was barely getting any sleep. But it was so rewarding … seeing all of these families being taken out of such an unfortunate situation. I feel so proud to have been a part of that mission.”
Martinez, who will continue her academic journey as a participant in RCSJ and Rowan University’s innovative 3+1 program, disclosed some of the hardships she experienced and how she was able to maintain her sanity.
“Being a young mom, having two kids, trying to focus on school—on top of two careers … really affected my mental health,” Martinez said. “Throughout the years, I was my biggest critic. I became very anxious and depressed.”
She then became cognizant of a running dialogue, taking place in her head that subtly hindered her progress. She began to ask questions like, “Am I being a good mother?”
“Or, I would fail a class and say, ‘I’m not good enough,’ Who says that you’re not good enough?” recalled. “I was beating myself up because I wanted everything to be perfect. It was literally my mind against myself.”
After reflecting on her circumstances, however, Martinez had an epiphany: “Nothing in life is perfect. I had to tell myself ‘You’re not perfect [and] everything happens in its own timing.’ I feel like once I realized that [and] once I gave myself some grace, that’s when everything started unfolding and everything just started going more smoothly for me.”
Martinez utilized this new, positive mindset; retook the classes she failed and passed them all.
Laura Easter, coordinator, Military Services, RCSJ, was a first-hand witness to many of Martinez’s tribulations and triumphs.
“Lesley has persevered despite her busy schedule with her career [and] being a mother while actively serving our nation,” said Easter, who is in her third year working at the college. “Lesley has pushed through her academics and never gave up, no matter how much she had to juggle at one time.”
Easter had many heart-to-heart talks with Martinez and describes the veteran “as a student with grit, passion, and courage.” She believes the recent graduate can be an inspiration to all.
“She never kept her goals too far out of sight,” Easter said. “Her commitment to completing her degree was there and I think that is what students need to sometimes be reminded of. Hard work does pay off. I sincerely admire her dedication.”
Martinez, who manages a group of troops—some in their late teens—noted she has made many errors on her life’s journey. However, she is certain she has learned from her mistakes, and recognizes that those mistakes helped strengthen her character. Martinez is also amenable to sharing this knowledge with others, especially to her offspring.
“I want people to learn from my … mistakes,” she said. “I want my children to learn from me. My sole purpose on this Earth is to make sure that my children are 100 times better than I ever was.
“So, if that means putting my mistakes and putting everything on the table in order for them to learn, I’m willing to do that. I do that with my troops at work. I can only hope to be a good example and be motivational to other people around me.”
Setting a good example for others is one reason why Martinez was selected to be a flag bearer at this year’s RCSJ–Cumberland Commencement ceremony.
“I take such pride [in] being an Air Force veteran,” she said. “I love to be that positive representation for not only the branch of service that I serve, but also [for RCSJ].”
Martinez spoke about the respect she has for RCSJ administration, faculty, and staff who helped her during trying times.
“I’m just thankful that everyone has always been in my corner,” she said. “Everyone always encouraged me to be better. I’ve had a great experience here.”
Martinez, who wants to live a quiet and simple life on a farm after she retires, appreciates all the challenges placed in her path, and acknowledges that they helped her achieve balance during “this season of my life.”
“It’s such an amazing feeling,” Martinez asserted, “because you create more confidence in yourself. You walk with more confidence; you walk with more positivity. It was really such a change for me. I am so happy with everything I have overcome.”
For more information about Rowan College of South Jersey’s Military Services program, visit RCSJ.edu/Veterans.