Grad Story: Maria Villanueva

May 17, 2024

When Maria Villanueva emigrated to the United States from Mexico City 20 years ago, she left behind her whole world: family, friends, a career and cultural traditions.

She was facing many uncertainties and concerns as a teenager. But Villanueva overcame these long odds to earn a GED and pursue professional goals in finance.

On Monday, Villanueva will achieve another one of her goals when she graduates from Western Nevada College with an Associate degree in General Business.

“This Monday’s ceremony will be memorable because I will be closing a cycle in my life full of good memories and with the sensation of accomplishing something for me and my family as the first generation going to college and opening the doors for our future generations,” she said.

To adjust and prosper in her new country, she quickly realized the need to learn English. She enrolled in English Second Language classes at Incline High School and one of her teachers helped her prepare for the GED. Villanueva took the exam in 2009 at Western Nevada College after receiving some training from the college’s adult education program (now called ACCEL).

“Maria’s perseverance in achieving her dreams, even as a mother and business owner, is truly remarkable,” said Angela Holt, director of College and Career Readiness at WNC. “Her success highlights the importance of education, community support and mentorship as pathways to success. Her story is a testament to what can be achieved with dedication and hard work. We are proud of Maria and honored by the opportunity to support her along the way. On behalf of the entire team at ACCEL, congratulations, Maria!”

villanuevagraduatesShe passed the exam late in 2009 and was touched and inspired by the ceremony that WNC provided its adult education grads.

“I attended the ceremony that they did in May 2010 and that was very motivational,” Villanueva said.

To make ends meet, she started a house-cleaning company. But her passion was in finance and in 2013 began working in banking, assisting business owners with their financial goals and needs.

Villanueva didn’t forget how WNC helped her pass the GED, and in 2013 she returned to Western to begin the long journey of earning her business degree. Fortunately, she met Lupe Ramirez on her first day, WNC’s Latino Leadership Academy creator and now a member of WNC Foundation’s Board of Trustees.

“I was super nervous because my English wasn’t good at all, but that day I found an angel in my path,” Villanueva recalled. “She took the time to show me what I needed to do and she talked to me in a very inspirational way.”

At the time, because of her immigration status, she needed to pay for her tuition as a foreign student.

“But she shared with me all the benefits of studying and applying for scholarships,” Villanueva said. “Finding somebody who not only speaks the same language but understands you as an immigrant is like gaining the lottery. That day I completed my enrollment.”

As a mother to two daughters, Villanueva couldn’t dedicate herself to being a full-time student, so her degree has been a long time coming.

“My advice for other students is that it doesn't matter how many credits you can do every semester, but PLEASE do not stop; every class counts and please do not be scared of language barriers because those are only in our mind,” she said.

Villanueva currently works for Washoe County School District in the Special Education Operations Department.

“I am so proud of her for believing in herself and for not letting the language barrier stop her from reaching her educational goal,” Ramirez said. “Her story will make an impact in other people's lives. I love that she's extending her hand to help others reach their own potential!”