CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas – Throughout most of his life, Ruben Rodriguez felt something was missing. He had an amazing family. He was making plenty of money working for an oil refinery and plant. But he was left wanting more. After talking about it with his wife, Connie, he realized what he was missing – a university degree.
Now 54 and after returning to college four years ago, Rodriguez is earning that university degree. He will walk the stage with nearly 1,070 others from Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi at commencement ceremonies on Saturday, May 14, at the American Bank Center.
“I hope to become a professional engineer following graduation,” said Rodriguez. “It will be difficult to find someone willing to sponsor a non-traditional such as myself, but I’m used to trying repeatedly until I succeed.”
Rodriguez chose an unconventional path toward his dream of obtaining a university degree. In the 1980s, Rodriguez was a good student in high school and his teachers and family expected him to go to college. He found himself at Del Mar College, following his talent in drafting, and began working toward an Architectural Technology degree.
“I later realized that wasn’t enough,” said Rodriguez. “Talent alone wasn’t enough to fully commit myself to that discipline. I didn’t have an emotional investment in it. I didn’t have the passion to go to school back then.”
Despite this, Rodriguez kept at it, attending when he could night school with his wife. He soon entered the workforce and was making a comfortable living. They soon had a family; daughter, Tanya, and son, Josh. Eventually, he stopped attending night school to fully commit to his wife’s education. In 2000, his wife graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Elementary Education from the Island University.
“It wasn’t until 2011 when I noticed something was wrong,” said Rodriguez. “I realized I always had a desire for a university degree, so when I came back to school, I knew exactly what I wanted to study, unlike last time. This gave me my passion to fully commit to it.”
Rodriguez’s passion was in mechanical engineering. In 2012, Rodriguez made arrangements at his work to take time off to return to school to continue his education.
“Mechanical engineering makes our lives easier,” said Rodriguez. “It makes the things we do daily more efficient and quicker. When I’m analyzing a system in chemical plants or oil refineries, I know what to do and what to look for, and that will save lives.”
Pursuing mechanical engineering is difficult enough. Pursuing it after being out of school for such a long time is tougher. Rodriguez’s required coursework such as physics and calculus changed greatly in their concepts from the last time he had to take them. This difficulty led Rodriguez to admit there were times he questioned his decision to return to school when he already had such a good job.
“My wife would repeatedly tell me, ‘it will all be worth it because you know you will end up with a university degree,’” recalled Rodriguez. “I realized she was right. She and I both knew I would not be happy without a university degree.”
During his time as an Islander, Rodriguez led study sessions for fellow engineering students and tutored others in science and math through the Center for Academic Student Achievement.
Those study sessions, especially for Dr. Jose Giraldo’s Calculus II class during his first semester back, were critical for him, and became vital to several who were not doing well, he recalled.
“I took the reins and became the group leader,” said Rodriguez. “I coordinated with everyone’s schedules and set meeting times for everyone. I also laid down group rules such as homework was to be done outside the meetings to focus on learning the course’s concepts.”
The final exam was brutal and none in the study group was confident, he said. But when they received their grades, it was As, Bs and Cs; everyone passed.
“That experience taught me something valuable,” said Rodriguez. “What really matters is learning. It’s more than understanding content knowledge. It’s about being motivated to apply what you learn.”
Rodriguez is ready to join the others in his family with a degree from A&M-Corpus Christi. His daughter graduated in 2009 and his son in 2010. Rodriguez never thought about attending anywhere other than the Island University, where he and his family were treated as individuals rather than numbers.
“Everyone in our family being university graduates is a special milestone,” said Rodriguez. “Me being the last to graduate in our family, it completes our primary circle, but our grandkids will soon be here also.”
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His advice to current and prospective students comes from his own experience.
“If you have the desire to attend college while you’re young and you know what you want to study, then go to school now and don’t give up till you finish,” he said. “But if for some reason life happens and gets in the way, and you have to put your education on hold, always remember that it’s never too late to come back to school to pursue your degree, enhance your career and fulfill your heart’s desire. My wife and I are living examples of successful non-traditional students.”