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First-Generation Grad Aims to Help Community’s Future Generations
Dec. 15, 2016
Diana Rodríguez came to UT Dallas with support from the Academic Bridge Program and worked at the Center for Children and Families, part of the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences. After earning her degree this week, she plans to pursue a master’s degree and become a counselor.
UT Dallas senior Diana Rodríguez has a plan for almost everything. And with her commencement approaching, her post-graduation plan involves helping immigrant children who may not have a lot of resources — a situation that she knows firsthand.
Rodríguez graduates Friday with a double major in psychology and child learning and development, as well as a minor in gender studies. She plans to begin a master’s degree program with the hopes of becoming a counselor who works with Latino immigrant children.
“It's very difficult for an immigrant family to be here by themselves. They don't really have a support system,” Rodriguez said. “So I want to be a part of a support system for that child to help them thrive and be successful.”
Rodríguez was born in Austin after her parents emigrated from Mexico. Her father died when she was 3 years old, prompting her and her mother to move to the Oak Cliff area of Dallas, a community that is home to many immigrants. Growing up, she saw the challenges they faced and realized the impact she could make in her community, which led her to UT Dallas.
“I want to be able to work with immigrant families who don’t have resources. It can be hard for them to find a counselor who’s bilingual like me.”
“I figured that in Dallas I could work and make connections, and by the time I graduate, if I don't already have a job lined up, I'll have so much experience from working in the city that it will be easy for me to find a job,” she said. “That’s the plan and it has worked out very well so far.”
Rodríguez always knew she was going to college.
“In my household there was never a question of whether or not I was going to go to school. It was like, ‘You're going to go to school. Where are you going?’” she said.
With support from UT Dallas’ Academic Bridge Program, which helps high-potential, first-generation college students complete a college education, Rodríguez began her college career with a goal of earning a PhD and becoming a psychologist. But her plans took a different turn when she started volunteering and then working at the Center for Children and Families (CCF), part of the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences.
She began by providing agency referrals for families served by CCF. Then she was asked to help with the center’s Juega Conmigo (Play With Me) program, which helps foster healthy parent-child relationships and lays a foundation for children’s social-emotional learning and school readiness.
“I started working with kids and I fell in love with it,” she said.
Adriana Baird, supervisor of the Juega Conmigo program, said Rodríguez is a self-starter who has developed important skills for working with the children and parents.
“She was scared that she wasn’t going to have the right answers to their questions, but she kept coming to the classes and learning. And now she is one of the best facilitators in the program — someone who connects easily with the children and parents and establishes an environment where they feel safe and supported,” Baird said.
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The experience prompted Rodríguez to add child learning and development as a second major. She shifted her plans, focusing on a career helping children and families and hopes to eventually open a professional counseling office.
“I want to be able to work with immigrant families who don’t have resources. It can be hard for them to find a counselor who’s bilingual like me,” she said. “My five-year plan after I earn my master’s degree is to work alongside another counselor so I can learn how the insurance system works, because it's a system that you have to understand in order to best use it. I have to understand it completely.”
Her mother, Rufina Rodríguez, works as a custodian in the Midlothian Independent School District. She said she was proud of Diana’s graduation and goals for the future.
“I know that Diana’s graduation means it will be easier for her to make a living, and she will be better off than we are now. Getting an education is the base of prosperity and moving forward,” she said.
Diana Rodríguez said her college experience was essentially a team effort with her mother.
“She handed me all the tools for me to be able to go to school. She didn't go to college, but she’s always helping me. For example, she says, ‘I can't help you with the homework, but I can help you with everything else, like I can pack your lunch, I can make sure you're fed so that you don’t pass out at school.’ She does things like that.
“They're not big in the grand scheme of things, but they're very important. I think that without that support I probably wouldn't have finished college.”
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