The daughter of immigrants from El Salvador, and the third of four children, she is first to earn a college degree, inspiring her siblings to also seek higher education.
"For our family, this is huge," Pineda, 22, said. "My younger brother now wants to go to college, because he saw that I did it, and I graduated. That really puts a smile on my face."
Older sister Marta Mendez, 26, is an education major at Indiana University — Purdue University Indianapolis, while another sister, Cecilia Pineda, 25, plans to return to IU Kokomo in 2015 to complete a degree in criminal justice. Their brother is 10.
They've come a long way since moving to Logansport, when Maria was a second grader. The move brought their family together — Cecilia and Marta had been living with family in El Salvador, while Maria was with her parents in Los Angeles. The girls spoke little or no English when they moved, and they experienced culture shock moving to the Midwest.
"Los Angeles is so diverse," Maria said. "When we moved to Logansport, if we saw five other Hispanics, it was once in a blue moon. I'd lived in the United States, but mostly spoke Spanish."
There was another cultural difference — more opportunities for education available to them.
"Women are more independent here, and have careers, and can choose to be something besides a housewife," she said. "We've really embraced that. We can better our lives, and have a better quality of life than we would have had in El Salvador."
She knew from an early age that her career would be in the medical field. At age 15, her optometrist hired her as a translator and file clerk, giving her an early chance to experience her chosen field.
She enrolled at IU Kokomo for its School of Nursing, and also because her sisters were students there at the time, providing a support system.
"We were the first in our family to go to college, so we were relying on each other," she said. Marta transferred when she moved to Indianapolis, while Cecilia took some time off to work.
Maria found it hard to transition to college life at first, but guidance from J.R. Pico, lecturer in Spanish, helped her. Pico is a native of Colombia, and provided an example of someone who had succeeded in academics.
"As a Latino, he empowers Latino students," she said. "Our culture is about family, and he treated us like family. It was major for us to have that special guidance."
Pico said Maria's educational success should inspire other Hispanic students to go to college, and breaks down stereotypes of Latinos not speaking English, and working in low paying, low skilled jobs.
"She and her sisters are good examples for their own family, their community, and the region," he said. "Maria has a bright future as a nurse, and shows others that they can aspire to these kinds of professional jobs. Because she is bilingual, she will be in demand when she passes her certification and is ready to work."
He knows the kinds of barriers students like Maria face in getting to college and succeeding — many lack money or transportation, and as first generation college students, their families often don't know how to apply and how to access financial resources. Others work one or two jobs to pay their own way, and have to make time for college around their work schedules.
When one of them succeeds, Pico said, "I celebrate their achievement and their graduation as if I were graduating again. It is difficulty, but important. It's something that pays off in the end."
Maria earned her degree in December 2013, and participated in Commencement in May. Her whole family attended, and it was an emotional day, for her parents in particular.
Her mother attended school through third grade, while her father has a seventh grade education.
"It was a great day for all of us," she said. "My family was overwhelmed."
Maria is preparing to take her nursing certification exams, and then wants to work in Indianapolis, either in an emergency room or an intensive care unit. She also wants to earn a Master's of Science in Nursing degree.
"My degree has opened tons of doors for me," she said. "I think I picked the perfect degree for me, that fits what I want to do. I can't wait to see what I do with it. I know I'll have a better and brighter future."
Indiana University Kokomo serves north central Indiana.