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Rodriguez-Ortiz overcomes obstacles to earn degree

by Alan Shirk, Penn State Berks

May 16, 2019

WYOMISSING, Pa.––One could certainly say that Aymed Rodriguez Ortiz is a resilient and resourceful student who overcame major obstacles to realize her dream of graduating from college. She did just that on Saturday, May 4, when she earned her B.A. in Communication Arts and Sciences (CAS) with a minor in Global Studies.

“It means so much to me to graduate. I have been through a lot of things that I have been able to overcome to achieve my goal,” adding that her four years at Penn State Berks have enriched her life immeasurably and encouraged her to continue on to graduate school.

A native of Puerto Rico, Rodriguez-Ortiz moved to Pennsylvania at age three, went back, and returned here for ninth grade, moving to West Lawn and graduating from Wilson High School in 2014. Her mother, Zosire–her hero–was her strongest supporter and continually encouraged her.

The transition from high school to college was a difficult one. Her family struggled due to financial issues and Rodriguez-Ortiz felt that her obligation was to go to work to help support the family. Her mother insisted that she go to college and she enrolled at Penn State Berks, but could not commit to her studies. Then during her first semester, the family home burned to the ground, but with her mother’s continued urging, Rodriguez-Ortiz remained in school.

During her second semester, she was encouraged to pursue a mentor position on campus, which changed her attitude toward college. “Being an intercultural mentor, being a first friend to students coming from other countries really appealed to me. I felt I had found my niche and that I was able to help those who needed help transitioning to college, understanding U.S. laws and customs, strengthening English language and writing skills and much more,” Rodriguez-Ortiz recalled. 

Then tragedy struck when a close friend was killed in an automobile accident near the end of the semester and Rodriguez-Ortiz wanted to drop out. Once again, her mother convinced her to return as a sophomore. She also believed that she owed it to her late friend who had been so enthusiastic about her studies.

Rodriguez-Ortiz said she literally bloomed during her second year at Penn State Berks, becoming much more involved as an intercultural mentor and as the diversity chair for the Student Government Association. She states that she was empowered by two women in particular: her CAS professor, Dr. Cheryl Nicholas, who made her see herself as a scholar, and Sharon Pitterson-Ogaldez, the Diversity and International Programs Coordinator, who hired her as an office assistant and helped her to refine her presentation skills. 

In her junior year, Rodriguez-Ortiz continued to excel in her academics and involvement in campus activities, but experienced yet another family issue when her younger sister, also a Penn State Berks student, was hospitalized with serious depression. She explains that at the time, she felt partially responsible because she believed she had not done as much for her sister as the students she was mentoring. Once again, she was able to deal with this family challenge and remain in school.

Now, as a graduating senior, she has made her mark on the college. Rodriguez-Ortiz has—among other achievements—been head intercultural mentor, a social media intern for the college, and campus inclusion advocate, and served as vice president of the Chinese and Punjabi culture clubs. 

She also excelled academically, conducting research with and served as a teaching assistant for Nicholas and Pitterson-Ogaldez. In addition, she was inducted into the Lambda Pi Eta, honor society of the National Communication Association. She has also received other awards during her time at the college.

Roriguez-Ortiz also discovered the world of international travel by going on an embedded course trip to Switzerland. “It was my first time overseas and because of it, this past summer I went on my own to China for a month and to Japan for 10 days. In China, I was able to stay with students I had befriended at Penn State Berks as an intercultural mentor, which has made me many lifelong friends. Plus I got a chance to practice my Chinese, which I have been studying since high school,” she said.

Next she wants to use the passions she developed at Penn State Berks to pursue a master’s degree in higher education, write a book about helping youth deal with mental health issues and eventually become a professor.

“I worked very hard because I wanted to make my mother proud of me.”

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