For Dr. Ana Maria Rodriguez, making sure students are well prepared to enter and complete college successfully is not a job, it is a way of life.
Rodriguez, who has been serving as The University of Texas-Pan American's interim provost and vice president for academic affairs since April, has dedicated the past three decades to training educators to become effective teachers and counselors to students.
From the time she was a child, Rodriguez knew she was an educator. The oldest of six children, Rodriguez often helped her younger siblings with their homework.
"I think that's been my calling in life. I wanted to change the world for those who were less fortunate than I and to make a difference in their lives," said Rodriguez, who will resume her role as senior vice provost for Academic Affairs for Undergraduate Studies and academic assessment and retention in January upon the arrival of UTPA's new provost and vice president for Academic Affairs Dr. Havidán Rodríguez.
FROM LIFELONG TEACHER TO LIFE-CHANGING COUNSELOR
Rodriguez - who was valedictorian of Miranda City High School and Laredo Community College and who graduated summa cum laude from Texas College of Arts and Industries (now known as Texas A&M University-Kingsville) before earning fellowships and accolades in her graduate studies - said she felt well trained as an English teacher, but was unprepared to help her students as people.
"My very first year teaching ... I had kids in my seventh grade class who were 15 years, 11 months old waiting to be 16 so they could drop out. That broke my heart," Rodriguez said. "I didn't know how to work with them to get them to change their perceptions of themselves and what they can do to begin to value education."
Rodriguez continued teaching at the secondary level for several years, but said it was an experience with one of her students who had problems at home that led her to return to school to study counseling so that she could better serve her pupils.
After receiving her master's from UTPA and doctorate from the University of Houston, Rodriguez returned to UTPA to teach counseling courses to graduate students.
"I wanted to change teacher preparation so that teachers were prepared to handle the life experiences of kids in a different way," she said.
She also saw it as a better way to help grade school students, because she could train teachers and counselors how to help children succeed in school and life.
'ALWAYS A TEACHER, ALWAYS A COUNSELOR'
Rodriguez saw the opportunity to help students further once she moved into University administration. As senior vice provost for Academic Affairs for Undergraduate Studies, Rodriguez spearheaded numerous programs to help students successfully enter and graduate from college.
At UTPA she helped start the University 1301 Learning Frameworks course, which helps first-year students develop strong studying skills, time management and other essential skills they will need to navigate through college. She also facilitated the Academic Advisement and Mentoring Center which provides counseling to students throughout their undergraduate studies among other programs.
When the Learning Frameworks course began, the University's retention rate for first year students was 60 percent. Today it is 72-74 percent, thanks in part to the college readiness class and other initiatives, Rodriguez said.
"Students do not fail their first year because they're not smart or don't know their subject matter. They drop out or fail because they don't have the skills to navigate higher education, they don't know what the expectations are," she said.
As liaison to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, serving as Master College Readiness Adviser and P-16 Special Adviser for the South Texas Region, Rodriguez has helped public school districts improve their curricula and programs to better prepare students for college.
In 2006 she was appointed the first University of Texas System Academic Fellow and worked with the UT System Executive Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs on a new initiative to enhance faculty leadership development within the UT System.
Though she is no longer in the classroom, Rodriguez said, "I'm always a teacher and I'm always a counselor. I just implement them in a different way."
A LEADER AMONG COLLEAGUES
Those who have been taught by or worked with Rodriguez credit her with much of the successes of the University and public schools in preparing students.
Dr. Victor Alvarado, professor of Educational Psychology in the College of Education, has known Rodriguez for 38 years when he first became a faculty member at then Pan American University. At the time Rodriguez was a graduate student in the counseling program under a special training project for counselors and administrators. After receiving her doctorate from the University of Houston, she returned to UTPA and became a colleague of Alvarado.
Rodriguez served as chair of the Department of Educational Psychology while also director of the master's degree counseling program. During that time the program saw its largest expansion and had some of its most successful years, Alvarado said.
"She was very good at encouraging people and supporting people in what they wanted to do," Alvarado said. "She was a role model for an incredible number of women in the Valley who consider her their inspiration for pursuing education. When she left our department, we all felt that we lost somebody terribly important even though we understood that she could have a bigger impact at a University-wide level."
Alvarado said her primary concern has always been the students.
"She has not been into promoting advancement of herself but into promoting the condition of the students," he said. "That is why she created so many courses for freshmen like the Learning Framework course, that was her initiative, and it has been a very successful program. Having an adviser in each of the colleges was her idea, the campus in Rio Grande City is her doing and one of her biggest accomplishments."
Though she is credited with creating numerous initiatives to help students succeed, Rodriguez has always been a low-key person who is good at promoting collegiality. She never dictated or forced her solutions or decisions on faculty and recognized different people's points of view and tried to reconcile the differences, Alvarado said.
Dr. Daniel King, superintendent of the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo Independent School District and former superintendent of the Hidalgo Independent School District, said Rodriguez played a critical role in developing one of the first early college high school programs to be available to all students in Hidalgo.
"She's very dedicated, very committed and I think some of the things with her that are key are that she is a problem solver and she's got a can-do attitude," King said. "She's always looking for ways to solve problems and get through the road blocks to get the job done."
As the liaison for the P-16 Council, Rodriguez also helped further student success by working with South Texas College on articulation agreements to make it easier for community college students to transfer to UTPA and working with public school systems to develop stronger programs that better prepare students for college, King said.
"I think that under her leadership, and with all the players there, my sense is that it has been one of the more productive and more successful P-16 councils in the state," he said.
Dr. Hector Ochoa, dean of UTPA's College of Education, was a former student of Rodriguez while he was working on his master's degree in counseling at the University.
"She is among the best instructors I've ever had in my career," Ochoa said. "She is dedicated, passionate, knows her subject matter and has made a significant impact on the students she has educated."
Ochoa said he and many of his classmates saw Rodriguez as their role model; she even inspired him to pursue a doctorate.
"She excels at multi-tasking," he said. "She never loses her cool. Somehow she knows how to juggle all the balls in the air and none of them fall."
In addition to her dedication to her work and dexterity in handling numerous responsibilities, Ochoa said many also value Rodriguez's integrity and ethics.
"UTPA is her heart and soul," he said. "It's just in her blood."
A RIGHT HAND TO PRESIDENTS
In 2006, during the tenure of former UTPA President Blándina Cárdenas, Rodriguez took on the role of interim provost for the first time from March to August of that year, following the departure of Dr. Rodolfo Arevalo. Her innumerable talents at tirelessly but successfully handling a number of positions at once didn't go unnoticed.
Her abilities are so esteemed by Cárdenas that the former president says "she (Rodriguez) should have been a university president.
"If any one person deserves the credit for the University's success in raising retention and graduation rates it is Ana Maria Rodriguez," Cardenas said. "She is brilliant and remarkable in her ability to bring creativity to multiple complex initiatives and manage them with discipline and sensitivity. Her selfless commitment to meeting the needs of our students and the university as a whole is unmatched."
Four years later, Rodriguez found herself in the interim provost position again under UTPA President Robert S. Nelsen, when then-Provost Paul Sale went back to teaching in the College of Education. Nelsen calls her a remarkable individual who has given most of her personal and professional time to helping students at the University.
"She has served selflessly as interim provost on two different occasions, and she is to be commended for her leadership. Her legacy of helping students is eminent, as it never fails that I run into former students of hers who are now accomplished professionals in the field who acknowledge her mentorship as vital to their success," Nelsen said."She's a phenomenal asset to our University, an extremely close and trusted friend to me, and I can't imagine this University without her."
Rodriguez said she is honored to step in wherever and whenever she is needed.
"It gives me one more opportunity to give the best of me," said Rodriguez. "I work almost 24/7, I work long hours and I work weekends. For me it's not a job, it's a way of being."
For Rodriguez, seeing students successfully complete college and continue into careers or graduate school is enough of a reward for her.
"If I could have one little iota, maybe a pebble of sand, in helping make someone's life better, I will have accomplished my mission in life," Rodriguez said.