WORTHINGTON - As a young child in Mexico, Claudia Rodriguez loved school so much that she asked to attend classes in both the morning and afternoon. In her homeland, students typically went to class for half a day, and worked when they weren’t in school.
If she attended both, Claudia reasoned, she would simply learn that much more.
“My thoughts were always to get a career - be the one to finish school,” she said.
When Claudia was 8 years old, her family crossed the border into Texas and enrolled her in a third-grade classroom in Canutillo, a suburb of El Paso. She didn’t know English yet, and her teacher wasn’t eager to help her learn.
“My teacher was very mean to me and put me away from the others because I didn’t know the language,” Claudia said. “I would go to my friends and ask them how to say words in English, and the teacher didn’t like it. She taped me to my desk so I couldn’t leave.
“My first year in school it was very, very hard,” she added. “That pushed me forward. I said, ‘I’m going to graduate no matter what.’”
Still, Claudia struggled. She wasn’t retaining information, which made learning a new language difficult. It wasn’t until the fifth grade that a teacher suggested her parents take her to a doctor. After some testing, Claudia was diagnosed with ADHD. Unfortunately, her parents couldn’t afford to treat it.
“I struggled, but that didn’t stop me from what I wanted to do,” Claudia said.
Over the course of the next few years, Claudia bounced around at schools in New Mexico and Marshall before moving to Worthington in 1997. By then, thanks to some one-on-one teaching at Marshall, her knowledge of the English language was much improved.
Claudia enrolled in Worthington High School as a ninth-grader. She worked overnights as a babysitter - caring for a little boy who wouldn’t sleep at night - and attended classes during the day. The lack of sleep became too difficult to concentrate on her studies.
“I dropped from the high school and went to the ALC,” she said.
Claudia was 15, living on her own, trying to earn enough money and get an education and also had a baby of her own. When she gave birth to her second son at age 18, she dropped out of the ALC.
Had she been able to complete her schooling on time, Claudia would have graduated in 1999. Instead, she concentrated on earning her G.E.D. by enrolling in math and science classes through District 518 Community Education to prepare her for the test.
She and her husband, Carlos - the father of her second son - added three more children to their family, and yet she continued to study, earning her G.E.D. in 2009. She was a full-time mom, a self-employed maid and still had her dream to go to college.
With her diploma firmly in hand, Claudia was eager to enroll in college, but without documentation, she couldn’t get financial aid. Since she came to the U.S. as a young child with her family, she had only a work permit. She applied for and received a green card.
“Once I got my green card, I went to the college right away to register,” Claudia shared. “When they asked, ‘What do you want to go for?’, I didn’t know. I hadn’t thought about it.”
Ultimately, she enrolled in cosmetology at Minnesota West Community & Technical College in Jackson.
“I suffered domestic abuse and I wanted to do something to make women feel happy,” Claudia said, noting it was the father of her oldest son who had abused her. “I knew when I felt depressed, getting my hair done or getting my nails done, I would feel different.”
Claudia began the three-semester cosmetology degree program last August, completing the classroom portion this spring. She has one semester, comprised primarily of hands-on learning, to complete this fall.
Since Minnesota West doesn’t have a December graduation ceremony, students were recognized during the May 9 commencement at the Jackson campus. Claudia, who gives much credit to her instructors Danylle Espenson, Callie Krause, Bethany Ariel and Blessing Reynolds, graduated with highest honors. She crossed the stage to a burst of cheers from her family.
“I’m not going to say it’s been easy,” Claudia said. “I’m putting more attention on what I’m getting from this (an education) than on how hard it’s been.
“I want to thank my family for supporting me in everything I do,” she added. “Every single word of encouragement always helped me and always pushed me to what I wanted to do.”
Claudia’s husband juggled his own full-time job with cooking and caring for the family as she attended classes from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. and worked as a direct support professional from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m. They still have four kids at home, ages 12 to 20.
“I’m extremely proud of what she’s come through,” said her son, Carlos. “Life has been going against her this entire time, yet she … has graduated as a highest honors student. It’s inspiring.”
Carlos was taking classes at Minnesota West, and hopes to continue pursuing a degree in law enforcement from the Worthington campus. When Claudia saw him struggling with college, she said she did everything she could to encourage him.
“You just have to work for it,” she said. “I’m a 40-year-old woman with five children, working overnights and (I have) ADHD without taking medication. If I did it, anyone could do it.”
Not only has Claudia accomplished what she set out to do - and with honors, no less - she is also well on her way to becoming an ordained minister.
After enrolling in the Minnesota School of Ministry (MnSOM) “a long time ago,” Claudia has returned to her once-a-month classes in Farmington and is now just a couple of classes short of being licensed. MnSOM is affiliated with the Assemblies of God church. Claudia and her family are members of Solid Rock Assembly in Worthington.
“Right now I’m doing an internship to finish the certification,” Claudia said, noting that she is being mentored by the Rev. Scott Peterson. She hopes to be ordained in about a year and intends to combine her cosmetology degree with her ministry by offering free salon services to victims of domestic abuse.
“I want to help women feel better if they’re going through tough situations,” she said. “I think it’s something that I decided to connect so I can try to help them heal the inside while I’m working the outside.”
Claudia already made an impact on a client who came to the college salon. A “God is Love” sticker stuck to her mirror led to a conversation with the woman who, upon seeing it, opened up to Claudia about her verbally abusive husband.
“That’s where I got more push that this is God’s will,” Claudia said of her path. “I know that the enemy is always going to try to destroy what God is going to try to form. I know God is with me and I will be able to finish this.”
Claudia still has her green card, and isn’t eligible to apply for citizenship until she’s had the card for at least five years. She is in her second year of waiting.
“I don’t want to wait; I want to become a U.S. citizen,” she said with a smile. “Nothing around you has to stop where you want to go or what you want to be. The more struggle, the more success you’re going to have.
“I know for sure that the best support ever is God in my life and the strength that He gives me,” Claudia said. “If I fall, He will help me to get back up and keep on going.”