Education is a driving force in Ana Rodriguez’s life — it was her ticket out of poverty and to a rewarding career.
As director of development and corporate partnerships at the University of North Texas at Dallas, Rodriguez makes a living helping others access and afford higher education. In addition to promoting the school within the North Texas region and managing campus and community engagements, she is the primary fundraiser for scholarships and other top funding priorities.
These include UNT Dallas’ goal of creating the University of the 21st Century — a model, non-traditional university that will transform higher education by making it more affordable and accessible.
Sitting with Rodriguez in a cozy Mexican seafood restaurant in Oak Cliff on a drizzly Saturday afternoon, we learn that her drive to encourage youth, especially Latinos, toward college extends to helping them realize they belong there.
“Ever since I was little, education was super important,” the wide-eyed, upbeat Rodriguez says, with a warm smile. “We were very, very poor but going to incredible private schools because my mom worked three jobs to put me and my sister through school.”
Her mother, confined to traditional career choices for women during the 1970s in her native Lima, Peru, came to the United States in pursuit of a psychology degree. She dropped this path when she became pregnant with Rodriguez’s older sister.
The superb work ethic and prioritization of education Rodriguez learned from her mother are central to her fast-track success. At 31, fresh-faced Rodriguez is the youngest director at UNT Dallas, youngest member of the Hispanic 100 — where she serves as treasurer — and one of 54 individuals recently selected to participate in the Dallas Regional Chamber’s Leadership Dallas class of 2013. That’s not all. Prior to joining UNT Dallas in January, she served as executive director of Anita N. Martinez Ballet Folklorico, a renowned educational performing dance company. Hand-picked by Anita Martinez herself to interview for the role, Rodriguez was only 25 when she helmed the nonprofit organization and resigned from a private-banking assistant vice president position at Bank of America.
The Dallas-born, Mexican-Peruvian succeeded in raising millions of dollars for the Folklorico, making significant contributions to the community through the development of educational programs, job training and youth programs with a focus on high school graduation. The work led to her calling in higher education.
“We were able to teach these kids about self worth, so that they could say, ‘I want go to school, and I want to go to college,’” Rodriguez says. “That’s when I figured out … this is the kind of message that I want to give.”
Rodriguez attended Ursuline Academy of Dallas, an all-girls Catholic college preparatory school located in Preston Hollow — proximate yet a world apart from the low-income, Love Field area where she resided. “Most people in my neighborhood were trying to stay away from drugs and couldn’t see past high school.” Furthermore, while her mother worked tirelessly to afford a one-bedroom apartment and tuition, Rodriguez’s schoolmates “had mansions and were driving Range Rovers when they were 16,” she says.
“That never made me feel like I didn’t belong there,” Rodriguez affirms. “I was always very ambitious, very driven, so I was able to get scholarships. I felt like I deserved to be there because I was intelligent enough.I got there on my own merit.”
Rodriguez passed on Stanford and Vanderbilt universities, opting for Southern Methodist University so she could help care for her ill grandmother. She worked full time as a paralegal while attending school. It was important for the numbers-oriented Latina to keep good grades, so she chose to major in finance. She graduated as one of two bachelors of finance in the SMU Cox School of Business class of 2003.
Similar to her mother, Rodriguez is raising the bar for her own children — 8-year-old Isabella and the baby girl on the way due in February. “I often get criticized because people feel I put a lot pressure on my daughter because I tell her I want her to go to Harvard,” she says. “It’s not necessarily that I want her to go to Harvard, but I want her to feel that she can apply anywhere. I didn’t apply to Harvard because I just felt that I wouldn’t get in.”
“Everyone has an opportunity to be anything [they want] but very few catalyze it, especially the Latino community,” Rodriguez adds. “If young people realize they are a powerhouse ... because [they] have that strong work ethic, and a strong family cultural background, in addition to an education? Oh, the sky’s the limit!”
What attracted you to work for the University of North Texas at Dallas?
UNT Dallas’ mission — to provide enhanced, low-cost access to high quality education while preparing students to become exemplary citizens who can assume leadership positions in a global environment — really spoke to me. I felt I could really make a difference, not just in education reform but also in urban revitalization.
In what other ways is UNT Dallas different from other universities, and how does it benefit the Hispanic community?
UNT Dallas is the first publicly supported, four-year university within Dallas. From our modest beginning of 55 students, we now serve
a culturally diverse student population of more than 2,000. Many of our students are the first in their families to attend college, and the mix reflects youth directly out of high school, transfers from community colleges or other four-year universities and individuals entering or re-entering school after years in the workforce. Hispanics are the fastest-growing population and their college-age population will increase to 47 percent from 30 percent in the next 20 years, but they currently have the lowest post-secondary completion rate of any major demographic group in North Texas. UNT Dallas is addressing these trends by providing a high quality education at a lower cost to expand access to attaining a college degree.
How will UNT Dallas achieve making higher education more affordable for future generations?
As a very young, small-sized university, we are capitalizing on the advantages of an unfettered administrative and academic platform to embark on a large-scale effort — Building the University of the 21st Century — to embrace an entirely different approach to teaching and student support. This new model will create programs that are student-centric and foster a high degree of student support and engagement. To design, implement and ultimately monitor UNT Dallas’ efforts and guide formation of this innovative model, we created a commission comprising prominent business, community and civic leaders, such as Mark Cuban, Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings and Al Silva.
What advice do you have for Latinos who may be discouraged from pursuing a degree due to financial obstacles?
I’m a strong believer that a person’s financial background should not dictate the level or type of education they receive. You don’t choose the family/neighborhood you’re born into, but you do decide how well you’ll prepare yourself for the future. A college degree is absolutely necessary to survive in today’s competitive market. Keeping your grades high and volunteering in the community will not only get you into college but also make obtaining scholarships much easier.
What advice do you have for Latinas your age who are struggling in their careers?
Although it is extremely difficult, hard work pays off! Most things worth having or doing rarely come easily. It takes time, patience, persistence and a deeply profound desire to reach your final destination. The more difficult the journey, the more rewarding ‘making it’ will be.
What’s your secret to balancing a successful career, motherhood and marriage?
It’s definitely not easy, but I’m surrounded by such amazing and supportive people. The Lord blessed me with an extremely patient man who keeps me grounded. Even though my husband and I are complete opposites, he keeps me sane. My beautiful, loving, 8-year-old daughter, Isabella, keeps me on my toes and never ceases to amaze me. Also, my mother has been an incredible role model in my life. She was a strong, single mom who refused to let our financial state stand in the way of our education. I owe everything to her.
What accomplishments are you most proud of?
My biggest accomplishment is teaching my daughter, Isabella, to read. I believe literacy is extremely important. One of my greatest loves is reading. Passing that love for knowledge onto her is one of the greatest gifts I can bestow upon her.