First Generation Transition & Mentoring Programs helped pave the way for her success.
Somewhere in the back of her mind, Teresa Rodriguez wrestled with a gnawing unanswered question on a regular basis.
It took an indirect and seemingly innocuous challenge from the oldest of her three daughters to motivate Rodriguez to take a leap of faith that has changed her life.
Rodriguez is a newly minted Texas Tech University graduate with a bachelor's degree in sociology. When she walked across the stage in December, it marked the final step of an educational odyssey that began for a unique first-generation college student when she was in her mid-40s.
Along the way, Rodriguez found another level of inner strength she wasn't sure existed when she extended her family more than she ever thought imaginable.
In the middle of her unorthodox journey, family ties tugged at Rodriguez's heart when her cousin's five young children were thrust into limbo and teetered on the edge of becoming wards of the State of Texas. So Rodriguez, already a busy mother and grandmother, stepped in without a second thought and took in the five children -- at the time ranging in age from 1-8 -- as a foster parent.
"Sometimes I wonder how in the world I did it, but I did," Rodriguez said with a smile. "There were times when I wasn't sure I could make it, but the people at Texas Tech helped me and my family in ways I never expected."
Indeed, Rodriguez's story includes many subplots that required a pervasive network of people who pushed, encouraged and guided her. She found inspiration along the way, especially from the First Generation Transition & Mentoring Programs.
"The first-gen people became a big part of my experience by helping me so much," Rodriguez said. "They let my family be involved as much as I needed them to be and pushed me to do my best."
Turns out that was a two-way street because Rodriguez became an inspiration to her fellow, much younger first-generation fellow students, and one of her primary mentors.
"She was the ultimate inspiration to students in our program because she embodies what it means to persevere through life and education," said Patrick Byrne, section coordinator for the First Gen programs. "When you watched how Teresa was able to operate and also have a family at home, it put into perspective that if she can grind through it and succeed, all the rest of us can, too.
"I had just started here in my first adult job, and Teresa really helped teach me how to become a professional by just being who she is. To be able to work with her and learn from her experiences helped frame who I am as a professional."
A 1988 graduate of Lubbock High School, Rodriguez didn't go to college right away, instead joined the work force and eventually started a family. She dabbled with a couple of summer classes at Texas Tech in the early 1990s, but she and college just didn't click at the time.
When the oldest of her three daughters, Consuelo Rodriguez, began school at South Plains College in 2015, she often confided to her mom how difficult it was. When Teresa Rodriguez played the role of encouraging parent and pushed Consuelo, she got pushed back.
"She came home one day and said, 'Mom, why do you want me to do all this?'" Teresa Rodriguez said. "So I told her, 'Fine! I'll go to school with you.' She looked at me, and right then I knew I had to prove to her that she could do it if I could do it.
"It had always been in the back of my mind, but I had three girls to raise, so I kept telling myself 'No, I'm too old to be going back to school, and I just need to do what parents do and take care of my family.' The more I thought about it, and especially after she started at South Plains, the more I wanted to do something I had never done before."
Navigating two years at South Plains College created a set of challenges that Teresa Rodriguez learned how to manage as she juggled course work and a full-time job at the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center.
She also stayed involved with her family at the time, which included a middle daughter in high school and a younger daughter in middle school.
"After my first semester at South Plains, I realized this was going to be hard, so I had a little more compassion for my daughter, but I taught all my children that when you start something, you work as hard as you need to finish it," Rodriguez said.
"I had a lot of long days, but we made it work. You have to inspire yourself and put God first because with Him, everything is possible. I worked hard, and things started to fall into place."
Her associate's degree complete, Rodriguez wasn't ready to ease up, so she applied to Texas Tech. A friend tried to dissuade her, telling her Texas Tech was too big and would be a much more daunting challenge.
Rodriguez sought advice and help from LEARN Inc., which offers several federal TRIO outreach and student service programs designed to identify and provide services for individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds. The company's website notes that it offers "eight programs targeted to serve and assist low-income individuals, first-generation college students and individuals with disabilities."
With LEARN Inc.'s help, Rodriguez steered through the application process and got an acceptance letter from Texas Tech. That letter still in hand, Rodriguez's initial thought: "Am I really ready?"
In the fall of 2016, Rodriguez began her first year at Texas Tech, and the first impressions were rocky at best. She enrolled in 12 hours and realized quickly how different she was than most of her fellow students.
Besides not knowing anyone on campus, there was the inescapable element of being surrounded by classmates who were young enough to be her children.
"I would sit in class, and everybody looked at me a little differently," she said, able to smile about it now. "I'd look at them and think to myself, 'I'm here for the same reason you are.' It was a little overwhelming at first.
"Two weeks in, I didn't think I could do it. I just happened to walk into Doak Hall
and ran into a lady named Priscilla Morales. I must've looked upset because she asked
me if I was OK. I burst into tears and told her I didn't want to let my girls and
the five new little ones down."
Morales, who was a first-generation program section coordinator at the time, talked Rodriguez into meeting with Byrne, and a new set of friendships was launched.
Rodriguez signed up for several first-gen programs, and by her second semester, she was a mentor with the program.
"We talked her off the ledge and convinced her that she was supposed to be here and deserved to be here," Byrne said. "After that, she really became a driving force and a powerful influence in our program."
During that adjustment phase, though. fate intervened and a whole new set of emotional trials were introduced.
A family suddenly multiplies
It was no secret in Rodriguez's family that her a younger cousin and her husband had struggled with drug use for years, even as their family grew to include three young boys and two young girls.
Near the end of her first semester at Texas Tech and as the holidays approached in 2016, Rodriguez got a call from Texas Child Protective Services that the five children needed a place to call home. They were about to be taken from their parents and split up, so Rodriguez knew she had to intervene.
"It wasn't an easy decision, but it was the right decision," she said. "The last thing those five little children needed was to be broken up and sent to different places. They needed their family."
Added Byrne, "She saw an opportunity with some kids who really needed help. To her, it was the chance to step in and change the direction of their lives. There were a lot of days I went home and had to talk to my fianceé about how moved I was about hearing the things Teresa was doing."
Rodriguez told her aunt and uncle -- the grandparents of the five children -- that she would foster all five, and they moved in right as she was about to embark on her first semester at Texas Tech.
Between Rodriguez's parents, Esperanza and Santiago Rodriguez, and her two younger daughters, there was help. But life changed for the non-traditional student set to face one of the toughest tests of her life.
"Just like that, we were all back to changing diapers and taking care of little ones," Teresa Rodriguez said. "It created a whole different kind of family for us. I stayed very active with my own girls. I still went to all of their mariachi concerts, band concerts and orchestra concerts. But it wasn't the same relationship we had before. They were teenagers and they didn't understand right away. I just kept telling them, 'You have to try and adapt because if we don't take them in, the state will separate them.'"
Meanwhile, those long days from her time at South Plains became much longer.
It began with the familiar grinding routine that many parents navigate, including a morning and afternoon shuttle service with stops at daycare, elementary school and Lubbock High. Once the whole crew was home for the night, dinners were basic -- a lot of Ramen noodles, sandwiches and raviolis, Rodriguez recalled.
Even with the normal parental shortcuts taken and her two younger daughters assisting however they could, it was often 11 p.m. or later before Rodriguez could start focusing on her academic workload. Some nights she didn't crawl into bed until 3 or 4 a.m. The cycle revved back up at 6 a.m. to get seven children ready for school.
"We all had to adjust, and I knew it was going to be hard," Rodriguez said. "It was exhausting, but I never doubted it was the right thing to do."
Fitting in as a student and an inspiration
Not only did Rodriguez survive that first semester, she began to thrive. She landed on the Dean's List after her first semester, and as she got comfortable in the first-gen program, she earned a new nickname from her peers.
Younger students began seeking Rodriguez out for advice, both as a fellow student and sometimes to tap into her wisdom as a mom. When her younger cohorts didn't have anywhere to go on weekends or holidays -- or just needed a meal – Rodriguez opened her door and her heart and said, 'Come and eat at my house.'
"I just want to be where I'm needed and where I can help people, and I think finding the first-gen program gave me that at the right place and the right time," Rodriguez said.
There were more hurdles to scale as Rodriguez plowed toward her goal.
In the spring of 2017, the state intervened and abruptly removed all five foster kids from Rodriguez's home. The three boys were sent to a home in South Texas and the two girls to a home in The Panhandle.
Rodriguez and the children's grandparents were adamant that they needed to stay together, and for nine months they haggled with the state to rectify the situation. Finally, last June 1, the five were reunited, with the two girls moving back in with Rodriguez and the three boys with their grandparents. Soon after that, the children's mother ceded full custody to Rodriguez.
"We're back together," Rodriguez said proudly. "The boys are with their grandpa, and that's fine because they need a male role model. But all five of them see each other all the time and that's how it should be."
And despite a bunch of peaks and valleys, the uniquely blended family's matriarch is a college graduate because she refused to give up, even when circumstances changed and became more difficult.
"With what I have been through, I really believe I can tackle a lot more now than I was ever able to before," Rodriguez said.
"It started out as something I had to prove to my daughter, but it became much more important to me. Now I don't look at anything and believe I can't accomplish it. I know I can.
"What I hope people see when they look at me now is that it's never too late to go back to school. Look for resources or organizations because there is always going to be somebody there to help, especially at Texas Tech."