Estiven Rodriguez and his story of perseverance through the New York City school system is a hot commodity these days. Even powerful politicians are waiting for a chance to meet with him.
The Dominican-born senior’s sudden rise to fame began less than two weeks ago, but it culminated last night when President Barack Obama mentioned him in his State of the Union speech. Following the speech, U.S. Representative Charles Rangel hung around for 30 minutes just to say hello.
“I was like ‘oh my god, you do not have to wait for me ever again,'” Rodriguez, still seemingly in awe over the national attention, said of the Rangel encounter during a phone interview this morning from his hotel in Washington, D.C.
In his speech, Obama credited dedicated teachers and an innovative mentoring program at Rodriguez’s school, Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School, to highlight how it was possible to help students reach college.
But Rodriguez was also aided by a life-changing sacrifice by his parents, who left a comfortable existence in the Dominican Republic to seek a better future for their two sons. Rodriguez had a few minutes to talk about his high-profile visit to Washington, D.C. and gives his recipe for success as a Spanish-speaking kid who couldn’t understand his teachers on his first day of school.
[Ed:The interview has been edited and condensed for brevity]
The biggest surprise about being mentioned in the State of the Union address…
As soon as [Obama] mentions your name, the attention in the room is, like — you can not describe it. It is incredible. Every camera turns to you. Every person looks at you. As soon as he mentions your name, you can not describe it. It’s awesome. Everything stops.
What Obama said to him…
He told me how proud he was that I made it and just to keep working hard, because the harder work is ahead of me. I still have to go to college. High school is just a first step. [Rodriguez is attending Dickinson College on a full scholarship]
Why he left the Dominican Republic…
My family really wanted to focus on education. They wanted a better educational opportunity. We lived pretty fine in the Dominican Republic, but they just wanted a better opportunity and they were willing to sacrifice. My dad was willing to sacrifice the job he had over there to come over here.
The hardest part about moving to the U.S….
I remember my first day in sixth grade, I was in social studies class. My teacher was Ms. Aberger. She was teaching the class and going through the agenda.
The first thing I thought was, ‘I don’t understand anything, but okay.’ Then 10 minutes passed: ‘Okay, I’m getting a little nervous.’ Then the class goes on and I think, ‘well, maybe the next class is going to be Spanish.’ The next class was not Spanish.
By the third or fourth class, I was completely shocked. I was, like, really nervous. I felt like I was out of place. To be honest, that’s the worst feeling. That you’re out of place, like you don’t belong because you don’t understand what’s going on.
I had two choices. I was either going to complain about it or it was…the way out: learning English, putting in 120 percent and just focusing on that.
So I decided that if my family is working so hard just to be here, like, why can’t I do this? This should be easy for me. If I have to watch TV in English, if I have to go to my aunt’s house, who’s a teacher, for help, I’m going to go. If I have to stay after school until four — or some teachers even met with me an hour before school started — I was just going to do whatever it took to succeed.
What role his school played in his success…
We have teachers who are committed to help you at any cost. They’re there every single day and they’re available, even after school. I remember someone stayed with me until 7pm just to help me. That support group is really important, I think, especially when you’re an English language learner.
What his principal, Brett Kimmel, says…
I think it can’t be underestimated enough that a student comes from a wonderful family. And his mom, his dad, have spread educational values for the entire family. And the belief that if you work hard, if you do your school work, education is going to be the key that’s going to lead to a wonderful future. That’s why his family came from the Dominican Republic, where they were living a comfortable and successful life, to this country, because they knew that essentially it would mean a brighter future for their children.
He’s in a wonderful school with amazing teachers who will do anything for him, but at the end of the day he has to take advantage of those opportunities. And I give him a ton of credit because he’s done that. He’s realized that he’s got to work hard, he has to persevere and he has to take advantage and make the most of every moment.