It was going to be a time for celebration. Becky Rodriguez, executive director of the Texas Woman’s University Office of Diversity, Inclusion and Outreach, would walk across the TWU commencement stage on May 10 to receive her PhD in sociology. Mother’s Day would follow a couple of days later, then, in a matter of weeks, son Martin Jr. would graduate as valedictorian of Denton Ryan High School.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, closing schools and forcing K-12 and university students to finish the school year at home. Graduation ceremonies were either postponed, moved online or moved to outdoor venues that allow for social distancing. Texas Woman’s will hold a virtual commencement ceremony May 22 and hopes to conduct a traditional ceremony in August.
“I’m sad that we will not be able to walk across the stage (in May), as I have been waiting for this for a very long time,” Rodriguez said. “This is such a special moment for me and many of our students, especially for us as first-generation college students.”
In fact, many of the students whom she and her staff have mentored were graduating as well, and Rodriguez looked forward to sharing in the experience with them. She has been where they are, and her own experiences helped shape who she is today.
Rodriguez grew up in a family of migrant workers. From the time she was in elementary school to her first year of high school, Rodriguez worked with her family cleaning the West Texas cotton fields in order to raise enough money to buy school clothes and supplies for the year.
“I remember these days because it was work, but also an opportunity to spend time with family,” she said. “There were years where I would go by myself and stay with other family members because my mom and dad could not leave their jobs. I earned enough money to help my parents, and that gave me joy because I could contribute to our household.”
As a child, Rodriguez dreamed of being a teacher. She refused to listen to those who tried to dissuade her.
“My high school counselor told me I should not go to college because I would be a burden to my parents,” Rodriguez said. “She recommended that I stay home and find a job to help my parents, who at the time made less than $20,000 a year.
“I knew I wanted to be more than what people expected of me, and I had worked hard to be in the top 5% of my class,” she added. “I reached out to another counselor who was a family friend, and he helped me apply for college and get financial aid.”
She enrolled at the University of North Texas in Denton. Starting college 10 hours away from home and being a first-generation student was difficult, however.
“Not only did I not have a support system to guide me, but I was also in a new place where no one looked like me,” she said. “I did not feel I belonged in the academic setting I was in, but I kept my eye on the prize because I wanted to make my parents proud of me. I did become a teacher and love being in education.”
Rodriguez received her bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary studies at UNT, then went on to earn an MEd in educational administration at Texas Woman’s.
Now, she wants other minority, first-generation students to know that they belong in college, and at TWU.
“I often share my experience with students because I want them to know that we all struggle; we all had to explain to our parents what college is and why I had to take summer school,” Rodriguez said. “Today, I use my position to advocate for students and as a platform to show students they can do it, too.”
At TWU, Rodriguez has pioneered the way for programs such as the GO Program, which aims to make higher education more accessible to high school students; on-campus Cultural TALKS and Dialogues; a Multicultural Graduation Celebration; and the G-Force Mentoring Program, which has received more than $1.6 million in grants under Rodriguez’s leadership.
Rodriguez believes more women of color are needed in higher education, and she hopes to inspire more students to join the call. She says Monica Mendez-Grant, TWU vice president for student life, is “an inspiration to me, because she is one of the few Latinas in higher education who holds a position (at that level or above). She has a passion for students and is always looking out for her staff.”
She also counts Jessica Gullion, associate professor of sociology and her dissertation chair, as both a cheerleader and a mentor. Gullion, she said, “has guided me and provided emotional, professional and academic support during some of the most difficult times in my life and journey.”
One of her most difficult times was taking care of her father during his battle with prostate cancer. While working on her doctorate, working full time at TWU and managing an active family with a husband and three children, Rodriguez drove her father to doctor appointments and chemo sessions in Fort Worth every two weeks.
“We spent lots of days and nights in the ER, and all the while I would write, read or do research,” she said. “He always encouraged me to keep going.”
Sadly, her father passed away in September 2018 at the age of 64.
No doubt he would be proud of having two 2020 graduates in the family. On May 21, Rodriguez and her family will cheer Martin Jr. as he crosses the stage at Texas Motor Speedway, which is hosting commencement ceremonies for all Denton County high school graduates. Martin, who was a dual-credit student at TWU, plans to attend the University of Texas at Austin and major in architectural engineering. He has been accepted to the Cockrell School of Engineering.
The family will celebrate both graduations later this month, but not with the traditional graduation party with all their family and friends. Instead, Rodriguez said they will have a special dinner at home with the immediate family.
Still, she says, “I am thankful for the opportunity to share this special accomplishment with my son.”
By Karen Garcia
Marketing & Communication