Graduating student found her true calling at Iowa State after traumatic childhood

AMES, Iowa – Alyssa Rodriguez knows her late grandfather would be proud of her.

Her grandparents raised Rodriguez for much of her childhood while her mother battled substance abuse and legal challenges, and they supported her through a serious health scare. But both grandparents died before Alyssa graduated from high school and enrolled at Iowa State University. For her grandfather, especially, Alyssa’s education was a high priority. He wanted her to be the first member of the family to earn a college degree.

So, when Rodriguez arrived at Iowa State, she got involved with the campus community by planning events with her fellow students, and she learned how to apply the spirit of innovation to every corner of her life. When she finishes the fall semester at the end of this week and completes her degree in human development and family studies, she will have fulfilled one of her grandparents’ greatest dreams for her.

“My grandparents, who obviously hadn’t gone to college, didn’t really know much about it,” Rodriguez said during an interview reflecting on her time at Iowa State. “But they knew it would be a good thing for me, and they knew it was something I wanted. So, they really supported that pathway.”

Overcoming a difficult childhood

Rodriguez’s grandparents took her in as a baby. When she was just 14 months old, she was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, a form of blood cancer.

Her grandparents moved from Davenport, Iowa, to Memphis, Tennessee, to be closer to the children’s hospital where Rodriguez underwent treatment. Rodriguez spent most of the first nine years of her life in Tennessee until her grandmother died, which prompted her grandfather to move back to Davenport to be closer to his family.

Her grandfather, Aristeo Rodriguez, suffered from diabetes among other health concerns, and Rodriguez recalls caring for him during her first years of high school at Davenport West. Rodriguez joined the school’s robotics team and found a community of driven and supportive students that became like family. Her grandfather supported her involvement with robotics because it was an activity that could help her get into college. But when Rodriguez was 17 and just about to begin her senior year, her grandfather passed away. With her mother in prison and both grandparents gone, Rodriguez found herself with no viable options for living with family members. Instead, she moved in with her best friend’s family until she finished high school.   

“I was left in a weird point of not knowing what to do right before my senior year was going to start,” she said.

But she refused to abandon the dream she shared with her grandparents of getting a college education. Rodriguez applied for a Multicultural Visions Program scholarship, an ISU program that covers tuition for 100 scholars each year. Rodriguez was selected for the scholarship and enrolled at Iowa State with the intention of pursuing a degree in science and technology.

Finding her passion at Iowa State

Rodriguez said the first semester at Iowa State posed serious challenges. Many of her classmates could call parents or siblings to confide in when they struggled with the adjustment to college life. But Rodriguez didn’t have that support network available to her. Many first-generation students who are the first from their families to pursue higher education run into a similar experience, she said.

“My first semester was definitely the hardest, just because of everything I had going on and that was a moment where I felt like all of that weight was crashing on top of me,” she said.

Rodriguez started out as a bioinformatics major, but she found the coursework didn’t resonate with her. She considered majoring in public relations and political science until she took an introductory course in human development and family studies, a discipline that explores how humans develop behaviorally, cognitively, economically, emotionally, physically and socially throughout a lifespan. The course hit home for Rodriguez in ways she didn’t expect.

Rodriguez reflected on the adverse conditions she went through early in life while learning about family dynamics and child development as part of the coursework. She’d finally found her major, one that would allow her to help other kids and families struggling with the same kind of challenges she overcame.

“It answered questions about myself, and so that helped ignite the passion further,” she said when asked why she chose her major.

Rodriguez also found a place to fit in after joining the Student Union Board, a student organization that plans and programs events at the ISU Memorial Union. Rodriguez earned a spot on the board’s executive committee where she oversaw programming budgets and worked at live events and concerts.

“Working on the Student Union Board gave me the discipline and community that I was looking for,” she said.

A creative future helping others

Rodriguez also caught “the innovation bug” at Iowa State. At the end of her freshman year, she was selected for an Innovation Fellowship. Working with a mentor, Rodriguez was encouraged to incorporate the principles of entrepreneurship and innovation into her daily life.

The experience ignited a desire to eventually take on a nonprofit leadership position or found her own organization. Rodriguez identified the areas of education, housing and alleviating poverty as important causes she’d like to address.

The Innovation Fellowship also taught her that anyone can harness their creativity in the workplace, not just artists or performers.

“Innovation taught me I can still be creative, no matter what I’m doing,” she said.

In January, Rodriguez will begin a RESULTS Fellowship, a national 11-month program during which she’ll work to combat poverty. She wants to spend her career serving others and working on the issues that are important to her.

Rodriguez never got the chance to tell her grandfather that she’d earned a college scholarship, and he won’t be there to watch her receive her diploma. But earning her degree is the culmination of a dream they shared since she was a child. 

“It was a huge conversation that my grandpa and I always had, so I think he would be really proud,” Rodriguez said.