Of dreams, sacrifices and an education choice scholarship: How one high school grad has her sights set on becoming a doctor

May 24 2023 • By Roger Mooney


MIAMI – Nery Perez-Valdes wanted to become a doctor, but life got in the way.

She fled Cuba for Miami with her mom when she was 11 and found herself working at 14 to help pay the bills. Nery would become a single mom and for a long stretch worked two jobs to keep the lights on and food on the table.

Nery always wanted a private school education for her daughter, Ilen, and a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship made possible by corporate donations to Step Up For Students allowed that to happen.

“I was a single mom since I was three months pregnant, and when I’m saying, ‘single mom’, I’m telling you ‘single mom.’ No child support. No help. No nothing. Period. The end,” Nery said. “Thanks to Step Up For Students, Ilen was able to get the education I wanted for her.”

Ilen has made the most of that opportunity – and then some.

Ilen Perez-Valdes proudly wears her Rising Stars Awards medal while standing on the edge of her high school campus.

She graduates this spring near the top of her class at Immaculate-LaSalle High School, a prestigious Catholic school in Miami. She has a scholarship to the University of Miami and plans to major in neuroscience and double minor in business administration management and Spanish. Her goal is to attend medical school and become a pediatric oncologist.

“My mother never received a college education. She was barely able to graduate high school. All she has done since she got (to the United States) is work, work, work,” Ilen said. “She came here looking for the American dream. I feel like if I succeed, she can live out her American dream through me.”

Ilen has received a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship since kindergarten. She said she’s grateful for the opportunity to receive a quality education – first at Saint Agatha Catholic School, and then at Immaculata-LaSalle.

“It was really difficult to make ends meet when I was younger, so I wouldn’t have been able to attend a private school where I received such an excellent education,” she said.

Ilen is a member of the National Honor Society, president of Immaculate-LaSalle’s Spanish Honors Society, vice president of the Science Honors Society, and treasurer of the English Honors Society. She is a member of the Rho Kappa Social Studies Honor society and HOSA (Health Occupation Students of America) Club. As a member of her school’s Salesian Hearts Club, she prepared retreats for Catholic middle schoolers in Miami. She volunteers at a Veterans Administration hospital through the Purple Hearts Club. She has gone on more than 20 campus ministry retreats, including two regional retreats to New York.

Outside of school, Ilen tutors children at Be Strong International, a South Florida nonprofit that provides services to children from broken homes. She is also a member of the Children Trust Youth Advisory in Dade County.

Not surprisingly, Ilen is one of Immaculate-LaSalle’s school ambassadors.

She was honored as a Super Senior at Step Up’s 2023 Rising Stars Award event. The award is for seniors who demonstrate academic achievement, leadership, community service and/or extra-curricular achievement.

Ilen's close relationship with her great grandmother - Tata - is why she started Tata's Legacy.

Of all Ilen’s achievements both in and out of school, she is most proud of starting Tata’s Legacy. Named after her great grandmother, Ilen and a group of high school students in Dade County visit the residents at Coral Gables Nursing and Rehabilitation Center. That’s where Tata lived during the last years of her life.

The students read, play dominos and bingo, pray, and talk with the residents for four hours one Sunday a month.

It began as a service project at the start of Ilen’s junior year. She had attended a post-COVID 19 school retreat where the theme was: Who are you now after the pandemic?

“I knew who I was, but I had so much potential to do so much more,” Ilen said. “I’m getting straight A’s, I’m active in school, but that wasn’t enough for me. I want to do more.”

Ilen’s Sunday visits with her great grandmother form some of her fondest memories of her childhood. Tata was the type of great-grandmother who called you at 7 a.m. on your birthday to sing “Happy Birthday” in both English and Spanish and slipped you $25 every month.

“She made such a huge impact on my life,” Ilen said.

Tata’s Legacy earned Ilen a Miami Herald Silver Knight Awards nomination for community service. And it will live on at Immaculate-LaSalle after Ilen graduates. She recently appointed a rising junior to run the program.

Ilen’s desire to be a doctor stems in part from her mother’s dream and from all the time Ilen spent in the hospital when she was younger. She was born with a number of health issues, including hypotonia, which is poor muscle tone that impacts muscle strength and motor nerves. Ilena required daily physical, occupational and speech therapy during the first few years of her life. She was often hospitalized. During some of those stays, she was moved to a bed in the pediatric cancer unit.

“I met all these kids who were sicker than me, and It was such an experience to see how they were living their lives and trying to make the best of it under their circumstances,” she said. “I want to help those children and their families.”

Ilen with her mom, Nery, and stepfather, Arieo, at the Rising Stars Awards event.

Nery wanted Ilen to attend Immaculata-LaSalle, which can be a 50-miniute drive in the morning, because she wanted her daughter to be challenged academically. She’s not surprised Ilen more than met the challenge.

“Trust me, it was really hard trying to raise Ilen and have two jobs at the same time and help her with homework and help her with therapy,” Nery said. “I couldn’t do anything that I really wanted to do, and she says she wants to be what I wasn’t able to be. It makes me feel so proud, and I’ll be there guiding her and helping her all the way to the end.”

Roger Mooney, manager, communications, can be reached at [email protected].

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Roger Mooney