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DOWNEY − For as long as he can remember, Angel Rodriquez has always aspired to be the best — mainly because he had to be.
“I’ve battled most of the qualities that separate me from my peers,” Rodriquez said recalling his childhood. “When you come to this country and are not supposed to be here, you hide a lot of qualities. Unalienable rights is not real for everyone…so you’ve got to be the best.”
And some might say Rodriquez had an obligation to succeed after his mother carried a 2-year-old Angel from a war-torn Guatemala through the borders of Mexico to Pico-Union, Los Angeles, a major point of entry for many Latin American immigrants.
“My mother cleaned Jewish people’s houses. That’s how she made a living,” he said. “I remember being in wealth, exposed to what it’s about, but not having it. I think that put a fire inside of me. I’ve got to see how wealth works in this country and what it allows you to do.”
After years of study and sacrifice, the 23-year-old Rodriquez can now proudly say he’s one of the best as the Downey resident was awarded a full scholarship last month to Harvard University to earn a Ph.D. in the history of science.
“The day I found out, I wasn’t shocked,” Rodriquez recalled. “But my mother was crying. She said, ‘son, we made it in America.’ It’s like when you get drafted to the Lakers, you know what’s coming. After this degree, every door is open.”
Rodriquez’s academic journey, however, didn’t start in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Before coming to Downey, Rodriquez’s family lived in south Los Angeles where he attended Cathedral High School, an all-boys college prep Catholic school.
“I received my U.S. citizenship on my 17th birthday — if that wouldn’t have come through, I would’ve joined the Navy,” he said. “But I always wanted to go to college.”
After graduating in 2008 in the top four percent of his class, Rodriquez was offered guaranteed acceptance to a campus within the University of California system. He was accepted to UC Santa Barbara where he completed his bachelor’s degree in Philosophy in 2012 and this May, Rodriquez will complete his master’s degree in Latin American Studies at UC Santa Barbara.
“I’m graduating with my master’s degree with zero debt. I’m a very faithful person — God is really blessing me,” said Rodriquez, who received a full scholarship to complete his graduate work. “I always wanted to do more than just school. I love research, the ability to create knowledge. The lifestyle of the professor.”
Rodriquez acknowledges that his lifestyle could have gone very differently had it not been for his mother, Jeanet, and the mentors he met along the way.
“Every victory is a team victory. It’s hard — the challenges are very subtle, but they’re there,” he said. “I love fast cars, fast money…I love hip-hop, that gets me motivated. But I couldn’t go that route.”
When his doctorate program starts on Sept. 2, Rodriquez will be acquiring a degree in the history of science, which researches mostly niches pertaining to medical history.
“Very few schools have it so it’s really selective and competitive,” he said. “I will be researching the history of medicine in the 1940s and 50s in Central America. It’s a loaded topic, but that’s what you’ve got to bring to the table. I have to push myself to ask those hard questions.”
Rodriquez was awarded a Harvard Prize Fellowship, a six-year package that will fund his research trips to Guatemala and allow him to teach undergraduate students at the university.
“It’s a blessing finally seeing your success after being blind for a long time and it’s an honor to represent Downey,” he said. “No one handed me nothing — I couldn’t buy my way into Harvard.”
Set to visit Harvard next month, Rodriquez hopes his story will motivated other students to succeed in school despite the challenges they may have faced early on.
“It starts with ambition because ambition is free,” he said. “It costs nothing but what you’re willing to contribute to it. If you’ve got a hustling ability, instead of hustling drugs, why don’t you sell some knowledge? That’s what drives me.”
Published: March 20, 2014 – Volume 12 – Issue 49