Rodriguez-Ortiz overcomes obstacles to earn degree

Aymed Rodriguez Ortiz

Aymed Rodriguez Ortiz

Credit: Photo Courtesy of Alan Shirk

WYOMISSING, Pa. — One could certainly say that Aymed Rodriguez-Ortiz is a resilient and resourceful student who overcame major obstacles to realize her dream of graduating from college. She will do just that on Saturday, May 4, when she earns her bachelor of arts in communication arts and sciences with a minor in global studies.

“It means so much to me to graduate. I have been through a lot of things that I have been able to overcome to achieve my goal,” said Rodriguez-Ortiz, adding that her four years at Penn State Berks have enriched her life immeasurably and encouraged her to continue on to graduate school.

A native of Puerto Rico, Rodriguez-Ortiz moved to Pennsylvania at age 3, went back to Puerto Rico, and returned for ninth grade, moving to West Lawn and graduating from Wilson High School in 2014. Her mother, Zosire — her hero — was her strongest supporter and source of encouragement.

The transition from high school to college was a difficult one. Her family struggled to make ends meet and Rodriguez-Ortiz felt that her obligation was to go to work to help support the family. Her mother insisted that she go to college, however, and she enrolled at Penn State Berks, but could not commit to her studies. Then, during her first semester, her family's home was destroyed in a fire, but with her mother’s continued urging, Rodriguez-Ortiz remained in school.

During her second semester, she was encouraged to pursue a mentor position on campus, which changed her attitude toward college.

“Being an intercultural mentor, being a first friend to students coming from other countries, really appealed to me,” Rodriguez-Ortiz said. “I felt I had found my niche and that I was able to help those who needed help transitioning to college, understanding U.S. laws and customs, strengthening English language and writing skills, and much more.”

Tragedy struck again when a close friend was killed in an automobile accident near the end of the semester. Rodriguez-Ortiz wanted to drop out, but her mother convinced her to return as a sophomore. She also believed that she owed it to her late friend, who had been so enthusiastic about her studies.

Rodriguez-Ortiz said she literally bloomed during her second year at Penn State Berks, becoming much more involved as an intercultural mentor and as the diversity chair for the Student Government Association. She was empowered by two women in particular: Cheryl Nicholas, associate professor of communication arts and sciences, who made her see herself as a scholar, and Sharon Pitterson-Ogaldez, coordinator of diversity and international programs, who hired her as an office assistant and helped Rodriguez-Ortiz to refine her presentation skills.

In her junior year, Rodriguez-Ortiz continued to excel in her academics and involvement in campus activities, but experienced yet another family issue when her younger sister, also a Penn State Berks student, was hospitalized with serious depression. She explains that at the time, she felt partially responsible because she believed she had not done as much for her sister as the students she was mentoring. Once again, she was able to deal with this family challenge and remain in school.

Now, as a graduating senior, she has made her mark on the college. Rodriguez-Ortiz has — among other achievements — been head intercultural mentor, a social media intern for the college, and campus inclusion advocate, and served as vice president of the Chinese and Punjabi culture clubs.

She excelled academically, conducting research with and serving as a teaching assistant for Nicholas and Pitterson-Ogaldez. In addition, she was inducted into Lambda Pi Eta, the honor society of the National Communication Association, among other honors she earned during her time at the college.

Rodriguez-Ortiz also discovered the world of international travel by going on an embedded course trip to Switzerland.

“It was my first time overseas and because of it, this past summer I went on my own to China for a month and to Japan for 10 days,” she said. “In China, I was able to stay with students I had befriended at Penn State Berks as an intercultural mentor, which has made me many lifelong friends. Plus, I got a chance to practice my Chinese, which I have been studying since high school.”

Next she wants to use the passions she developed at Penn State Berks to pursue a master’s degree in higher education, write a book about helping youth deal with mental health issues, and eventually become a professor.

“I worked very hard because I wanted to make my mother proud of me,” Rodriguez-Ortiz said.