When Melody Rodriguez came to the United States from Merida, Venezuela, at the age of 17, she didn’t know she would work in higher education. Her passion for human rights advocacy and for creating meaningful change led her to pursue pre-law at South Florida Community College. But, after transferring to Armstrong Atlantic State University (AASU) in Savannah, Ga., and working as a minority recruiter upon graduation, she decided that law may not be her true calling.
Today, as she sits behind a desk in the administration building of her alma mater as the director of HOLA, the Hispanic Outreach and Leadership at Armstrong Program, it’s hard for Rodriguez to imagine doing anything else.
“My interest in higher education really came about after working as a university recruiter,” says Rodriguez. “I found out that higher education was something that was not only intellectually challenging for me but also presented the opportunity for me to use my leadership skills and be creative.”
As a recruiter, Rodriguez traveled to high schools throughout Georgia for college fairs and noticed that very few Hispanic students approached her for information. This trend was consistent from school to school, so she approached a group of students at one college fair and learned that they were concerned about their undocumented status.
“I became really worried,” says Rodriguez. “I realized that if 12 students at this one high school weren’t going to go to college after graduating, then what about the entire state of Georgia — what was going on in the rest of the state?”
But the challenges extended beyond citizenship: documented Hispanic students whose parents had immigrated didn’t know how to navigate the American higher education system either. They didn’t know how to apply for financial aid or what classes and tests to take in preparation for college because their parents had never gone through the process.
In May 2003, Rodriguez received a $500,000 grant from The Goizueta Foundation to start a recruiting and scholarship program for Latino youth at AASU, and HOLA was born. The program incorporates scholarship, recruitment and retention, and community service programs. Today, of the nearly 7,000 students enrolled at AASU, 249 are Hispanic — an increase of nearly 50 percent over the past four years. This fall, HOLA is launching a mentorship program that will pair Hispanic college students with high school students to guide them through the financial aid and college application processes.
Since starting the HOLA program, Rodriguez has furthered her own education and kept her sights set on the future, both personally and professionally. In 2003, she earned her master’s in adult education and human resources. Her goals include earning a doctorate in higher education, helping other institutions create programs like HOLA and building the Latino enrollment at AASU to someday become a Hispanic-serving institution.
“I feel that education is the key to everything in life,” says Rodriguez. “It allows Hispanics to become an active part of American society.”
— By Melinda Copp
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