When Magdalena Rodriguez walks across the stage at commencement on Sunday, she will leave behind a legacy that will give back to San Diego State University’s Millennium Scholars for years to come through the mentorship program she helped create.
As a high school senior Rodriguez applied for the Gates Millennium Scholarship without fully understanding its scope. It wasn’t until she received a thick packet in the mail that she began to understand what it meant — that all of her tuition and expenses would be completely paid for 10 years, to include undergraduate and graduate school.
The daughter of Mexican immigrants — mom with a third grade education, dad with a ninth — struggling to make ends meet in Watsonville, California, Rodriguez knew she wanted to go to college, but worried about how she would pay for it. She had already watched an older sister finish college with a mass of debt.
Fast forward six years to 2014. Rodriguez earned her B.A. in political science with a double minor in labor and workplace studies and Chicano studies from the University of California, Los Angeles. She is now receiving her master’s degree from SDSU in postsecondary educational leadership with a specialization in student affairs.
“Never in my wildest dreams would I believe that I would be graduating debt free with my master’s degree,” Rodriguez said.
“I am really, really lucky and blessed. My full time job has been to be a student. I was paid to go to school. It was a big de-stresser as well as a motivator to do well,” she continued.
Promoting academic excellence
The Gates Millennium Scholars Program is a $1.6 billion initiative funded by grants from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. They select 1,000 new scholars every year across the country, promoting academic excellence and providing opportunities for minority students with significant financial need to reach their full potential.
The program seeks to close the gap for underrepresented students in specific areas, said Michelle Lopez, the assistant dean of Undergraduate Studies at SDSU, who is the liaison between SDSU and the Gates Millennium Scholars Program.
SDSU is currently home to 14 Gates Millennium Scholars, mostly in the STEM — Science Technology, Engineering and Math — disciplines. The students went through a rigorous application process to earn their scholarships and have to meet a number of guidelines to keep their funding, which covers tuition as well as books and living expenses throughout their entire academic career.
There have been Gates Millennium Scholars at SDSU for six years, but not until recently has a program been in place to connect the students and build a community.
“We want the students to perform well academically, but also to build community and connect to campus in ways that will set them up for success,” said Lopez.
Many of the Gates Millennium Scholars are first generation college students and are not familiar with opportunities at SDSU — such as study abroad, internships, tutoring and career services — that will help them make the most of their college education.
It was this gap that led Lopez to launch the Gates Millennium Scholars Mentoring Program.
Through the program, graduate Gates Scholars, like Rodriguez, become mentors, helping undergraduate students navigate life at SDSU.
Along with the launch of a website, the mentorship program hosts networking events and helps students with life skills such as budgeting and interview techniques that will help them succeed in college and beyond.
More than just acting as a mentor, Rodriguez also worked as an intern with the Division of Undergraduate Studies, working alongside Lopez to help launch the program.
Creating the mentorship program was especially meaningful for Rodriquez, who found her passion for giving back and helping other students succeed while working as a residential advisor at UCLA.
Rodriguez said she hopes to be a student advisor, where she can “pay it forward” and provide opportunities for other students so they can succeed with the kinds of opportunities the Gates Millennium Scholarship provided for her.
“You need someone to be that rock for you,” Rodriguez said.