Estiven Rodríguez: from Washington Heights to the White House

Estiven Rodríguez (center) speaks with his math teacher, Dimity Palmer-Smith (left) and the principal of his school in Washington Heights, Brett Kimmel (right). (Photo by Mariela Lombard via El Diario-La Prensa)

Estiven Rodríguez (center) speaks with his math teacher, Dimity Palmer-Smith (left) and the principal of his school in Washington Heights, Brett Kimmel (right). (Photo by Mariela Lombard via El Diario-La Prensa)

At the Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School (WHEELS), there is a sign that says: “Being bilingual opens the door to a better future. You can give students the key.”

That key was the one given to Estiven Rodríguez, a 17-year-old student at the school who sat in the VIP box with the first lady of the United States, Michelle Obama, and was mentioned by President Barack Obama in his State of the Union address last Tuesday.

Two weeks before, at the White House summit titled “Expanding College Opportunity,” which centered on how to broaden access to higher education, President Obama spoke with Rodríguez for five minutes.

“Obama told me that he was very proud of me, that he wanted me to keep working hard, and to stay focused on my goals,” said Rodríguez. “I came [here] eight years ago and I never thought I was going to meet the president of the United States, or that I was going to have a conversation with him. It was incredible, I was in shock.”

The White House emphasized that his story highlights the importance of Obama’s goal to give all children access to a quality education that prepares them for a university degree, no matter where they live or where they are from.

Rodríguez is a child of Dominican immigrants and came to the U.S. when he was 9 years old without knowing one word of English. He is currently one of the best students in his class and will be one of the first in his family to go to college.

Together with his family and sponsored by his aunt, Fanny Rodríguez, he emigrated in September 2005 and settled in Washington Heights in Upper Manhattan. His mother, Lourdes Rodríguez, first worked in a factory, and currently works as a home care assistant for the elderly. His father, Jorge Rodríguez, 52, works at a Toyota dealership washing cars. His brother, Jorge, 20, studies photography at LaGuardia Community College.

Battling with English

Rodríguez entered the Juan Pablo Duarte School where he completed the fourth and fifth grades smoothly, thanks to the bilingual (Spanish-English) system. But when he entered the sixth grade at his current school, WHEELS, he had such difficulty with English “that I was going crazy,” he said.

“The first day of classes, the teacher started talking in English and I didn’t understand anything,” said Rodríguez. “The first thing I felt was that I didn’t belong there, that I couldn’t speak or understand English, and didn’t have the ability to learn the language.”

After that day, Rodríguez spoke with his teachers, the principal, and even his classmates, and they all came together to help him overcome his problem.

“The teachers met with me at 7 a.m. before classes, or they stayed with me until 5 p.m. and tutored me,” Rodríguez said. “And my aunt Fanny, who is an elementary school teacher, helped me at home.”

After six months, Rodríguez was writing and speaking the language so well that he even won the prize for student of the week, and he finished that year with an average of 88.

“My thinking was: My parents are working hard for my future, so I’m going to give 200 percent,” he said.

Rodríguez is fifth in his 12th grade class of 100 students, and he is ready to go to Dickinson College in Pennsylvania, with a full scholarship from the Posse Foundation.

“I still haven’t decided what to major in, but I’m thinking either business or education,” said Rodríguez.

“I knew that one day he was going to receive an award, because from the time he started school he’s always been very committed. He does his homework and never misses school,” said his mother. “We feel very proud to have a son like him.”

The principal of WHEELS, Brett Kimmel, affirmed that all the teachers have said to him that there isn’t a better student who deserves the recognition Rodríguez has received in the last two weeks, “because he’s an example of overcoming difficulty. He’s a hard worker, and a very approachable and friendly person.”


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