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Marine Science Magnet senior aims to return to New London armed with law education

Groton — Despite having been accepted into Wesleyan University and having been awarded the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Scholarship, Yalissa Rodriguez was determined to get into the National Honor Society her senior year, having missed it by a hundredth of a GPA point the year before — and she did.

Because that's the type of person she is.

"A lot of people were like, 'Why are you going to write more essays to just get into National Honor Society when you already got into college?'" she said. "And it's like, why not? If I can, I will, and that's the mentality I was raised with."

Rodriguez, a New London resident who is graduating from Marine Science Magnet High School, describes herself as both "persistent," "extremely passionate" and "like the most emotional person."

All descriptors were apparent in a 45-minute interview at her school in early May. She grew emotional talking about wanting to have the same extracurricular opportunities as her peers while working to support her family, and about why she teaches piano to kids for free.

She attributes much of her work ethic and values to her mother, who emigrated from the Dominican Republic to the United States more than 25 years ago, became a citizen, and raised three children while working as a nurse and now a home care aide.

Rodriguez said her mother grew up on a small farm in the village of Esperanza, in a house with a sheet metal roof and an outdoor toilet. She has uncles who can't read and cousins who don't go to school.

As in many immigrant stories, her mother came here for a better life. Rodriguez visited the Dominican Republic the summer before her freshman year, and it's not lost on her that she could've easily been in her cousins' position.

"I could've also been working at a grocery store and just not go to college," she said. "That could've also been me. It's — it's something. At the same time, they're happy."

Now, Rodriguez works about 20 hours a week at Rita's Italian Ice in New London. There was a time when she was working about 25 hours, between that and a previous job as a peer educator for Planned Parenthood.

She helps her mom buy things like toilet paper, toothpaste and detergent, "anything to help alleviate the house bills." Rodriguez also saved for almost two years to buy a Casio keyboard. With a love of classical music, she had taught herself to play. The fact that she wanted piano lessons but couldn't afford them made her decide to give free lessons to kids.

Outside of work, piano lessons and National Honor Society, Rodriguez has done fencing — she was team captain this year — and track for the past three years. And she has taken seven Advanced Placement classes, two last year and five this year.

"I didn't want working to stop me from doing clubs and doing sports and being so invested into my education," she said.

Rodriguez struggled to find balance as a junior but has now fallen into a routine: Wake up, take the bus, go to school, go home and change, do a four-hour shift at Rita's, shower, eat, do homework, "and then go back to sleep and do it all over again."

"I want to come back to southeastern Connecticut and make a difference here"

Rodriguez will be studying government at Wesleyan, a school that appealed to her because of its open curriculum, its diversity and how it reminded her of Marine Science Magnet.

Afterward, she aspires to go to law school, though she's also considering related fields in public service. Either way, she knows she's "going to be in school for a very long time, whether that be law school or graduate school. I want to eventually get my doctorate. I love learning."

She plans to take her education and return to New London to help people.

Her ambitions partially stem from a defining moment that happened when she was 7, something she talked about in her MLK Scholarship speech. Her mom hadn't been on food stamps in about a decade, teaching her children that it's hard to prosper when you're dependent on the government.

But at a chicken shop, a man assumed she was on food stamps because she is Hispanic.

When you're a kid, "you're almost color blind, and I guess that was the first time I realized that being Dominican, it can change the way people perceive you," Rodriguez said. She added the experience made her grow up faster.

Between New London and the Bronx, where she lived until she was 4 years old and to which she has returned in summers, Rodriguez commented, "Every place I've gone I've witnessed so much injustice and so much discrimination and just so much adversity, that I want to step up. I want to step up to the plate. I want to come back to southeastern Connecticut and make a difference here."

e.moser@theday.com

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