As the first person in her immediate family to go to college, Melanie Rodriguez ʼ11 (ED), ʼ12 MA grew up getting her ideas of what university life is like from books and movies.
“I couldnʼt ask my parents what going to college was like,” she says, although older cousins and teachers did also play a role in shaping her perceptions of life on a college campus.
Rodriguez had wanted to be a teacher since kindergarten, and to achieve her ambition she needed a college degree. With the Neag School of Educationʼs Integrated Bachelor’s/Masterʼs in elementary education ranking among Americaʼs top 25 teacher education programs, UConn was her No. 1 choice. But after growing up in Bridgeport, the prospect of living in Storrs was very different.
“Coming from the city, Storrs was a culture shock,” she says.
Rodriguez was fortunate to have support from UConnʼs Student Support Services (SSS) program, a pillar of the Universityʼs commitment to helping first-generation college students succeed.
“SSS helped me make a great transition from high school to college and prepare myself for the academic workload,” Rodriguez says. “I made connections with amazing mentors.”
Those initial connections started what became a hallmark of Rodriguezʼs UConn career. “I really just dove in, got to meet a lot of different people, and formed friendships,” she says.
She has since gone on to win the Neag Schoolʼs William Randolph Hearst Scholarship, Connecticutʼs Minority Teacher Scholarship, an American Association of University Women Scholarship, and an SSS grant.
In addition to the student teaching that is a cornerstone of teacher education programs, UConnʼs program also requires its prospective educators to intern in a school system. This more administrative experience facilitates networking with principals, vice principals, secretaries, people in a school districtʼs central office such as curriculum specialists, and even the superintendent. During her masterʼs year in the Neag program, Rodriguez served her internship at Hartfordʼs Clark Elementary and Middle School and seized the opportunity to make a permanent difference.
While some interns wrote a report suggesting how to solve a particular schoolʼs problem, Rodriguez and another Neag intern actually closed a gap in the Clark Schoolʼs academic offerings by resurrecting the schoolʼs library, which had fallen into disuse. Youngsters at the school will now once again have a school library, thanks to the UConn studentsʼ work.
Rodriguez and her colleague entered a Facebook contest sponsored by the We Give Books organization. Like all the other contestants, the two posted a photo on the social network of a child being read to. The photo that received the most “likes” would win $500 to spend on books as the winner desired.
“We won the contest!” says Rodriguez. “Iʼm an RA at UConn and I sent it out to the RA listserve and to everyone in Neag – ʻplease “like” this photo.ʼ We had over 2,000 ʻlikes!ʼ” Along with winning the contest, the pair held seven book drives throughout Connecticut, and received a donation from Scholastic Books, reopening the library with a total of 8,000 books.
Having expanded her comfort zone to forge personal and professional relationships and obtain her education, Rodriguez now hopes to give back to her community by obtaining a teaching job in Bridgeport.