Biology senior, Yessica Rodriguez, shares her unique story of finding her place and community at UNC.
My name is Yessica Elena Rodriguez. I am a biology major with an emphasis in pre-health with minors in both sociology and chemistry.
I guess with science I've always liked doctors and doctor-like stuff since a child. I remember in third grade we had to make a list of things you want to do when you grow up and, you know, we're still pretty young so there was a couple, I want to be a princess or all the boys wanted to be cops. And the only thing I wrote down on my list was 'I have to be a doctor.'.
You have to be.
I have to do it. And I remember at parent teacher conferences, my teacher was like, ‘she's very strong about wanting to be a doctor. Are you, did you train her to say that?’ Cause it's either doctor lawyer or teacher.’ no, she just really likes science stuff I guess. And then gradually as I got older I just gravitated more to science and I remember taking AP chemistry and just really enjoying it.
And even though I didn't do so hot on the AP exams as well, I was like, okay, you know, it's just a standardized test. I'll move on.
There's still plenty of more to learn.
Yeah. And then I decided that I'd make a whole degree out of it. Being a first generation student, the whole idea of college was scary in and of itself. So I knew I wanted to go to college and I wanted to major in some form of biology. I just wasn't sure how I was going to actually get there and do the things.
So would you say that your pre-med, like are you going for pre-med and aiming towards being a doctor?
Yeah, the overall goal is to go to medical school and then become a pulmonologist specifically. So a lung doctor for, and then I want to be a pediatric pulmonologist. So a lung doctor for little kids.
That's very specific.
How'd you get to that exact area?
So I was born three and a half months premature, so I was born at six and a half months, which is very young and very small. And growing up I had a lot of lung problems. I had bronchitis twice, I think pneumonia also twice, and then had severe asthma throughout most of grade and then now just have slight asthma. And so all the time that I've had to associate myself with pulmonologist or just any doctor in general gravitated me to become a doctor. And then just because of my personal story, a lung doctor specifically, because if they didn't give up on a one pound baby like myself, I shouldn't give up on those same kind of future cases as well.
That's fantastic. Yeah. And lack of a better word. It's a breath of fresh air that you're here studying something that you're passionate about.
What sort of community have you had here at UNC? In regards to your career or just you know, interest in cultures?
And so when I did decide to come to UNC and then came to the second half, last day of registration here, so it was a whole process and I was like, 'Whoa.' So I was just kinda frazzled with everything. And so I decided if I still wanted to have that full college experience and even though I lived about six minutes away, if I get all the green lights from campus, so it's like 10 minutes on a good day. I still wanted to live in the dorms, so I lived on West campus just because most of my classes were going to be there. And I found community with some of my friends that lived in that same dorm. We would stay up late at night and study, but we would do it.
And so in the dorms was just nice to have somebody, cause I knew I was up late at night and at home my mom would be like, ‘go to sleep.’ But having that friendship helped me to not be so anxious, I guess because just going to college I was terrified that I wasn't going to be able to I guess get out of my personal bubble and make new friends. But it came very easy and I think a big thing was the cohort that I accidentally joined when I came to UNC. So I'm frazzled, last second day of registration, I'm the last person to sign up for classes here and you're supposed to go to a series of seminars that teach you 'Hey, know what consent is and how to find time for yourself in college' and all of those and as great as they sounded, I was like, ‘no, I'm going to sit outside in the waiting area while they do all that and I'm going to figure out how to transfer all my financial aid to UNC.’
So I was freaking out. But the one I did attend was one for the honors program, which I was called LEAD and so I was like, ‘that sounds cool. I want to do that. And then when we went to register for classes, someone walked in to, I think we were the purple circles. And they're like, ‘all right, purple circles, who hears in LEAP?’ And I was like, LEAP? I'm pretty sure that's what I went to earlier, which it wasn't. And I was, I mean, I'm not in it, but I want to be in it. So if I say I'm in it, can I get my way in? So I raised my hand and they were like, ‘come with us, you have to register like with different pins and stuff.’ So I was like, okay.
And so the guy that walked us to the different room was one of the board members for a scholarship that I got earlier that summer. And he was like, ‘Hey, I know you.’ And I was like, ‘Oh yeah, I know you.’ And he's like, ‘how's it going?’ And I was like, ‘it's going well.’
Did you actually know him?
I did. He, um, it's Dr. Reinsvold and he's was part of this scholarship committee and application process, um, for a program that I was in in high school that helps first generation students be more successful in high school and then push them to go to college. And so then he was like, ‘Hey, you got the scholarship?’ Because he was even at the dinner and all that. And I was like, ‘yeah, like that's how I know you.’ And he's like, ‘you're not in LEAP though.’ And I was like, 'whaaat, no, really?'
And I was like, 'Oh my bad.' And he's like, ‘but you know, I know you like you meet all the criteria for it, let me go talk to the advisor.’ And so she was on campus of all days, shows up and is like, ‘okay, are you first gen?’ And I was like, ‘yeah,’ she was like, ‘great, low income? And I was like, ‘yup.’ She's like, ‘do you identify as an underrepresented group?’ And I was like, ‘what would you like consider underrepresented?’ And she was like, ‘are you Latinx?’ And I was like, ‘yes.’ She's like, ‘are you a woman?’ And I was like, ‘yes.’ And she's like, ‘great, welcome to LEAP.’ And I was like, ‘cool, what did I just join?’ So I ended up joining a cohort that now I have been a mentor for for the past three years. And I feel that if it wasn't for leap, I always look back, I consider my whole life was series of happy accidents.
Even like from birth, I just was like it's time, time. It's early. I know it's six and a half months in, but like I want to come out right now.
I got things to do.
Right. But it also works out cause if I was born at the nine month Mark I would be one class year lower. So I would have graduated high school different. And then I feel that my whole life is different. I don't like to think about it cause it freaks me out and I'm like, but what if, but I joined LEAP on a happy accident and I feel if it wasn't for that program I probably would have dropped out of college. Just because I did, you know, I had a dorm, I had a roommate, I had suite mates, but we didn't interact as much. And so that cohort brought me to my really good best friends that I have still today.
And even though we've switched advisors and the program has shifted throughout the years. It's taught me a greater sense of leadership but overall taught me how to be my own person. And so without it, I don't even know, I don't think I would have taken the steps to join all these other things that I've been a part of or let alone stay in college.
Because you're, you are a part of so many different areas on campus. Would you contribute LEAP as kind of the primary vehicle in which has brought you success at UNC?
I would say so because without it, because I joined it and I was just part of a cohort and then my advisor was like, ‘Hey, you know you want to go to med school, you know, GPA and the M-CAT are important, but it's also important to like be involved and like do things on campus.’
And I was like, ‘cool, like what?’ And she was like, ‘Oh, um, well, let's see.’ So she gave me a list of all the clubs and organizations related to my field and she's like, ‘just think you like have to put yourself in this, I can only do STEM stuff.’ So then she's like, ‘there's other things. did you ever do student government?’ I was like, ‘I did in high school.’ She's like, ‘well it's, we have one of those, but it's called student Senate.’ And I was like, ‘okay, like cool.’ And so when the emails were sent out, it's like, ‘Hey, do you want to join Student Senate?’ And I was like, ‘I remember this from somewhere... yeah, I do want to join student Senate.’ Filled out a packet, had to get signatures and then have been on student Senate for the past two years. So I feel like I awkwardly put myself into situations that have helped me excel in my college career. But initially going into them I'm like, ‘what am I doing?’ And then I come out of it. ‘Oh yeah, it all worked out.’
If you don't know what you're doing in college, that's okay. Cause I still think I don't, and I'm a senior, I'm still figuring it all out. But I think the biggest thing from what I've learned in my experience is find a place that you can call your own. Whether that's a specific specific cultural center on campus or with an advisor that helps you, not just with your academics but then also with your personal life and you can just to and just vent your life away. I know I did. I cried on a couch in an office that is no longer that same office, but every time I pass by it, I'm like ‘I remember right there.’
We all need that couch.
Right, exactly. And so just knowing, finding a place that you feel fully accepted in where you know you belong in is great.
Even if it's not a place, even if it's within a friend. Cause I know I had a friend who said if it wasn't for my constant bombardment of we need to go to lunch together, she wouldn't have stayed at this university. So sometimes it's okay to be annoying. I know I do it a little too much, but it has helped me gained a best friend that I don't know what I do without. So I think the big takeaway is even if you don't know what you're doing, you don't know if you're doing it for the right reasons or not. Just find your place.
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