Sports and music propel New London senior to success

New London — Luis Rodriguez-Veras was always told he had potential. It just took a year or two to reach it.

By his own account, the 17-year-old student at STEM Magnet High School of Southeastern Connecticut was something of a “slacker” in his early high school career, with subpar grades. He hadn't yet discovered a spark to propel himself to greater things.

It was his sophomore year that he tried out for the wrestling team. It turns out Rodriguez-Veras was pretty good at it.

“That was a very big life change for me. It was character-building and changed the way I looked at the world,” he said. “Without sports, I would not be the same person.”

Educators look to Rodriguez-Veras with pride as one of the school’s biggest turnaround stories. Rodriguez, who has signed on for a six-year stint with the Army National Guard in part to help pay for school, now has his sights focused on a degree from the University of Connecticut in Storrs in one of the exercise sciences.

It wasn’t simply the wrestling that led to the improvements. By his sophomore year, Rodriguez had started working out at the gym, found camaraderie, a new outlet for his energy and even a singing voice. At the same time, he dug into his academic studies.

By his junior year, Rodriguez-Veras was staying after school to work with teachers and balancing his time at wrestling practices and track meets with homework and even preparations for the annual New London Youth Talent Show.

Counselor Jennifer Occhionero recalls his grades increased dramatically, and suddenly Rodriguez-Veras was on the honor roll with a GPA of 3.7.

“I think it was a little bit of everything. He finally felt part of the school community and, instead of being in the background, reached out and became a leader,” Occhionero said.

Looking back, Rodriguez-Veras said wrestling was one of several motivating factors that influenced what school leaders say is a well-rounded, respectful, trustworthy and “all-around good kid.”

He was already a member of the Navy Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps program at the school, something Rodriguez-Veras said taught him structure, the ability to finish tasks and work as a team. It also helped earn him a spot on the educational schooner Amistad, where he spent two weeks in a program that included a tour of college campuses in Connecticut and New York. The time aboard the ship is where he wrote his college essay.

Rodriguez-Veras became a member of “More than Words,” a diversity and leadership group he called a “mind-expanding experience” that opened new worlds and brought together students from Groton and Ledyard. Group members took trips to Block Island and Cuba aboard the tall ship Oliver Hazard Perry, a civilian sailing training vessel.

Music was part of his high school life and another area where he could always improve. Rodriguez-Veras taught himself to play on a guitar given to him by his father his freshman year. He started becoming comfortable with his own singing voice with some urging from his high school music instructor Christine Nadeau. The newfound confidence led to an appearance in the New London Talent Show during his junior year where he performed Marc Anthony’s “Flor Pálida” in Spanish.

“People wouldn’t think a wrestler could sing. They are two totally different things, but both need a lot of effort and you need to be passionate to be any good,” Rodriguez-Veras said.

His fluency in Spanish is something Rodriguez-Veras said he also takes pride in and allows him to act as his mother’s translator. Born in Puerto Rico, Rodriguez-Veras found a home in New London with his mother and two sisters when he was just 2.

Rodriguez-Veras said his mother, Yanira, and sisters Daniela and Janice remain his foundation and urge him to “continue with what I’m doing so I can be something.”

g.smith@theday.com

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