Chemistry honors student Isela Rodriguez will graduate as first in her family

Do whatever you can to help your family, Isela Rodriguez was taught as a child.

But no one in her family had been to college, so she had to help herself get to Georgia State University – as a Goizueta Foundation Scholar.

At GSU’s fall commencement Dec. 14, Rodriguez will receive a diploma with honors in chemistry. She overcame cultural barriers to pursue a medical career that she hopes will serve low-income families like her own. As a Goizueta Foundation Scholar, she honors her leadership potential and her family’s admonition to help.

“I come from a world where I didn’t know what anything was,” she said in regards to higher education. “I am still learning as I go, but that doesn’t bother me. The next generation will have a better chance, because I’ve learned and can teach them.”

Long before she knew what college was — much less earned a 3.6 GPA, studied abroad in Argentina at the University of Cordoba’s medical virology lab, and set her sights on medical school — Rodriguez experienced the patient side of health care.

Her mother, Marta, who came here with her father, Antonio, from Guanajuato, Mexico, is diabetic, and Rodriguez spent her childhood helping her mother communicate with doctors. As a high school sophomore, Rodriguez developed Bell’s palsy, a temporary facial paralysis that prevented her eye from closing.

“It was a big obstacle to push through,” said Rodriguez, in a matter of fact tone that grew out of facing multiple daunting challenges. What kept her going was her own certainty that she could most help her parents, three siblings and community through higher education.

Her college goal had taken root in the honors English classes at Cross Keys High School in Atlanta. Billed as the most culturally diverse high school in Georgia, Cross Keys students come from 65 countries and speak 75 different languages.

For Rodriguez, dreaming of college required breaking free of cultural gender roles. “My parents expected me to know how to make enchiladas, tamales, chiles rellenos, tortillas and all the varieties of Mexican food by the age of 15,” she said. “Both my parents believe that women belonged in the home and not at school.”

Rodriguez’ college dream got a critical boost when Margarita Muñoz, then director of GSU’s Office of Latino Student Services and Outreach (LASSO), visited her school and promoted The Goizueta Foundation Scholars Fund.

“I was hoping that she would have the motivation and courage to continue with the application process and I would not lose such a talent,” recalled Munoz. “To my surprise and a few days after, I was thrilled to see her in my office accompanied by her mother, and bringing what she needed to be accepted to GSU….. If we, as educators, ensure the information comes on time to students like her, and we help them along the way, we will have many more first generation students flourish as she has.”

Named for the late CEO and board chairman of The Coca-Cola Company, the scholarship program assists Hispanic and Latino students in developing leadership potential as they progress to a diploma.

“It’s very common for Latina and Latino students to face barriers like Isela did with her family,” said Julia Perilla, GSU psychology faculty member and director of the National Latino Research Center on Family and Social Change.

“Many Latino families come from rural areas and traditional families with a lot of gender expectations, for girls especially. All subgroups of first-generation students come with their own challenges, and historically there have been such a small percent of Latinos and Latinas who have gotten to do what we are doing – pursue higher education. That’s why it’s so important to have ongoing awareness to make this happen for people other than oneself.”

For Rodriguez, accepting The Goizueta Scholarship meant breaking free of stereotypes and eventually travel far from Atlanta, in pursuit of a medical career. “Isela is one of those people you meet once in a lifetime… someone who ran with what she was privileged to get and became a leader,” Perilla said. “She is unstoppable with what she sets her heart to, and is always, always giving back to the community.”

Most recently, Rodriguez was a summer undergraduate researcher at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine’s Center for Structural Biology.

“The most remarkable thing about Isela is that you never had to tell or show her how to do a new laboratory procedure twice,” said Vanderbilt biochemistry professor Charles R. Sanders.

“For example, when taught how to purify a protein, she would watch and take careful notes. The second time, she could do it herself with [a mentor]watching. The third time she could purify the protein with no supervision at all. It is actually pretty rare to find students who can pick up new lab skills so quickly, and it says a lot both about Isela’s talent and about her determination.”

In summer 2010, the Goizueta Scholarship funded her study abroad to Argentina (below, Rodriguez with fellow Goizueta Scholars Denise Ceron and Stefania Carmonica).

“To leave the country and have it all paid for was an amazing experience,” she said. “In Argentina, I got to work in a wet lab, use instruments and work with chemicals and mouse species. Coming from nothing, as I did, to study abroad and an internship — now I want to give back to the community. It’s all I’ve ever wanted to do.”

The success of students like Rodriguez was one reason The Goizueta Foundation recently awarded GSU $4.998 million to expand the pipeline.

“If I had 30 minutes on TV with a Latino audience, I would tell them that nothing is impossible in today’s world,” Rodriguez wrote in her winning scholarship essay.

Today she fulfills that promise by teaching high school students how to apply for scholarships, reassuring their parents about the experience of college, and by example.

“I wouldn’t be here without The Goizueta Foundation, and I wouldn’t be as active,” she said, noting that she is a student ambassador for both the 1913 Society and the Rialto Center for the Arts. “It’s opened doors to a lot of things, including the person I’ve become.”

—By Michelle Hiskey; Contact Kim Cretors, (404) 413-3424