A dream deserved
First in family to attend high school, college
Photo by Kelly James
Thanks to scholarships funded by private gifts, Gerardo Rodriguez graduated from the University of Oregon last spring with a B.F.A. in digital arts. The first in his family to finish middle school, high school, and college, Rodriguez landed a web design job shortly after graduating.
A college degree, a design career, possibly graduate school. When Gerardo Rodriguez ’06 was seventeen, these were just dreams. Thanks to a teacher, and scholarships funded by private gifts, today they are realities.
The first in his family to graduate from elementary school, high school, and college, Rodriguez is the son of Mexican immigrants who moved to Hermiston, Oregon, in 1993. This spring, he graduated with a B.F.A. in digital arts—and an impressive resumé. While at the university, he made the Dean’s List three times, got involved with student groups, and volunteered with youth organizations.
‘Somebody reached out to me’
Rodriguez is working as a web designer, something he couldn’t have imagined back at Hermiston High. “I didn’t know what happens after high school,” Rodriguez remembers thinking. “Do I get a job? I didn’t know. There was no one in my immediate family that I could ask ‘How does this all work?’ But somebody reached out to me.”
That somebody was art teacher Pam Hefner, who helped Rodriguez with his admissions portfolio and encouraged him to talk about college with his counselor. Most importantly, she planted a seed by asking him what he really wanted to do after high school.
“She’s such a great person,” says Rodriguez. “I started thinking ‘College might be a reality? For me?’ I was lucky to have teachers that were keeping an eye on me and realizing ‘He’s got some potential.’” As valedictorian (4.0 GPA) and cocaptain of his soccer team, Rodriguez certainly had potential. But college also takes money.
Scholarships made it possible
“Without scholarships, I don’t think I would have been able to do it,” says Rodriguez. “I could only depend on my parents so much. They didn’t have the financial ability to get me through college.” Rodriguez received a dean’s scholarship, a diversity building scholarship, and an Erickson Scholarship, among others.
He still remembers receiving his award letter for his biggest scholarship. “I read it and I thought ‘Is this for real? I better not have just read that wrong!’ I folded it up, put it back in the envelope, set it on the table, and walked away. I didn’t want to be imagining things. So I came back a couple minutes later and read it again. It made me realize ‘Oh my goodness, I am going to college!’”
The value of a diploma
What is a college education worth? “For me,” says Rodriguez, “and someone from my family who has never experienced anything past middle school? It’s huge. It’s a milestone that’s never been accomplished before. It’s a realization that ‘You know what? We’ve done something right.’” Rodriguez credits his success to a strong work ethic, something he learned from his parents. His dad works for a manufactured home company and his mother for a produce packaging plant.
“My parents are doing work that is hard. A lot of people probably wouldn’t want to do it. But I’ve learned so much from them because they’ve never given up. It didn’t matter what the job was or what time of day it was. They’ve given their all just so that me and my sisters can have food on the table and clothes on our backs. I’ve learned so much from them. I can’t take for granted what’s been given to me. I’ve got to give it my all.”
“I just can’t be thankful enough to everyone who gives money for those scholarships,” says Rodriguez. “It allows the dreams and the goals of people like me, who never even thought of themselves as being able to go to college, to become a reality. It changes the way you look at the world.”