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Family’s first college graduate named commencement speaker

Yesenia Rodriguez speaks during the College of Arts and Sciences spring commencement

Yesenia Rodriguez speaks during the College of Arts and Sciences spring commencement ceremony on May 9, 2014.

Four years ago, Yesenia Rodriguez didn’t even think she would go away to college.

This month, Rodriguez didn’t just walk across the stage as an Illinois State graduate. She stopped at the podium and delivered her college’s commencement speech—a prestigious honor that’s even more remarkable given how far the first-generation college student has come.

Rodriguez’s parents are factory workers from Mexico with middle-school educations, and their parents were farmers. She’s the first in her extended family to earn a bachelor’s degree—and she’s not stopping there.

“My parents’ sacrifices have not gone unnoticed, and I work very hard for that very reason, to be the best version of myself I can possibly be because I know how hard my parents have worked to be in this wonderful country,” she said. “I want to take advantage of the great opportunities it has to offer.”

Like many first-generation college students, Rodriguez came to rely on a network of friends, professors, mentors, and counselors at Illinois State who helped her navigate her new world. Those people helped Rodriguez pursue a career serving others through medical social work, a passion first sparked as a child watching hospital staff assist her family during a cousin’s bout with cancer.

Rodriguez grew up in Melrose Park, and as a young Mexican-American woman she faced some unique cultural pressure to stay at home after high school. But she branched out and explored Illinois State anyway, drawn to its size and location—not too big or small, not too close or far.

“I decided to go away to school, and it was the best decision I ever made,” Rodriguez told STATEside.

She didn’t know what to expect when she arrived at ISU. The lists of majors and classes she saw were overwhelming, but she sought out help. She joined Mentoring and Academic Success Achievement Initiative (MASAI), a Diversity Advocacy program that helps first-generation, low-income, or historically underrepresented students like Rodriguez. Her MASAI mentor was a senior Latina student.

Yesenia Rodriguez poses

Rodriguez is seen here during her internship with Community Health Care Clinic in Bloomington.

Her professors became mentors too, a “family away from home,” she says. One of them was Judi Sevel, a faculty member and director of field education in the School of Social Work.

“Yesenia is an exceptional student. She has such natural talent: demonstration of empathy, hard work and commitment to clients,” Sevel said. “I am so excited to see where she ends up in her career.”

Rodriguez knows firsthand why medical social work is so important. When she was 12, her young cousin fought leukemia at then-Children’s Memorial in Chicago, and she was impressed by how the hospital’s staff helped her undocumented, low-income relatives get connected to the help they needed.

That experience stuck with her, as she volunteered at a community hospital during junior high, and then became president of Illinois State’s Colleges Against Cancer student group.

As a social work major, Rodriguez was required to do a two-semester internship her senior year, which she did at Community Health Care Clinic in Bloomington, a free clinic for the uninsured.

While she initially planned to work in a hospital someday, she said the clinic internship expanded her horizons and gave her an opportunity to work 1-on-1 with patients battling chronic illnesses. She implemented smoking cessation and diabetes management programs during her internship.

Rodriguez praised the School of Social Work’s emphasis on hands-on experience.

“It really, really prepares you,” Rodriguez said. “And the faculty is incredible. They’re with you along the way. They get to know you on a personal level.”

Rodriguez will begin graduate school at University of Illinois in the fall, but not before delivering her commencement speech. The 4-minute speech was “one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to write,” as she tried to balance reflections on her own achievements with a broad, relatable message for all.

Becoming the first to graduate in her family is special, but being the College of Arts and Sciences commencement speaker and earning a tuition waiver for her master’s are even bigger accomplishments.

It’s a huge milestone, not just for Rodriguez, but her entire family.

“Yesenia prepared a speech that truly captures the experience of the students on our campus and offers inspiration to find ways to make the world better,” said Kathryn Wehrmann, an associate professor in the School of Social Work. “I anticipate she will continue to meet future challenges with intelligence, courage, and grace. We are so proud of her.”

Ryan Denham can be reached at