Meet Sandra Rodriguez
Sandra Rodriguez currently serves as the Director of ASUN Center for Student Engagement at the University of Nevada, Reno. She has 25 years of experience engaging students in civic learning and democratic engagement through clubs and student government at University of Texas, Pan American, at University of New Mexico and at University of Nevada, Reno. Her focus is the strong ties between student engagement and equity in inclusion in creating just learning communities. I know Sandra through the NASPA Civic Learning & Democratic Engagement Lead Initiative where Sandra currently serves as a cohort leader for colleges & universities committed to fostering civic engagement on their campuses.
What do you do every day?
The drive to work is focused on what I am going to do when I get there, which often includes signing off on budget approvals for the 35 accounts I manage and the 300 student organizations under my purview, connecting with my staff, and managing the constant influx of emails. When I come to work, I am pretty stoked because I get to put my strengths to work. For me it is a joy to be in my head, trying to figure out how we are going to take these precious human and capital resources and put them together in a way that they better the community and the student experience.
I have never sat still, either as a professional or as a member of the division of student services here. The onus is on us to continue to grow the co-curricular environment that we are providing to students and to be purposeful and intentional in playing a part of their educational development. It is my job to constantly be on the lookout for any opportunity for teaching and learning. That is what our work is all about.
What inspires you to do this work?
Both of my parents were undocumented when they came to this country in 1941 . When my older sisters were born, they were able to get residency. All they ever asked of us was to get an education because they understood that would change our lives. We were so privileged because our parents told us no matter how hard it gets, we were never going to be farm workers, not because it was not honorable, but because our education had to come first. Now, all six of us have degrees, two of us have master’s degree, and I am working on my doctorate.
My parents finally became American citizens at the age of 70. My mom, in spite of the fact that she is 83, still drives, so she goes through the neighborhood to take her friends to vote. For me, I can’t believe I am lucky enough to do [civic learning & democratic engagement] work at this level. It is the manifestation of every privilege that they did not get to engage in until they were in their seventies.
What keeps you going during times of frustration and challenge?
When I get frustrated, I sit down with students and say this is not just about registering to vote. It is an everyday responsibility to be a citizen. All I can think about is [my parents and others] have waited so long to be able to take advantage of what today people take for granted and think is too much work. Sometimes, I just pause and ask if we can take a timeout to share something we are both grateful for. Gratitude is a way of contextualizing our privilege and owning the responsibility that comes with our privilege. The other thing that I do, I have this picture on my desktop of Julian Bond, the student civil rights activist who became the long-term state senator of Georgia. When I start to think my work is too hard, I look back at the amount of effort it took for Julian to run for office in his youth during the 60’s in the state of Georgia.
How does your work contribute to the flourishing of students and the university?
I am now in a position to impact that, to bring back for students the value of engaging democratically from whatever position you are in life. Especially if that student is first generation, I realize that I may be changing the trajectory of that student’s life and also that entire family’s life, their future life.
Just when I start to think my work is way too important, though, I remember that I am part of a larger organization with an even more important mission – to give the students the best well-rounded education that we can get them. And eventually not only is the family going to benefit, hopefully the community is going to benefit from this. I try to keep in mind the interconnectedness of everything.
Around 2003, our students organized a march down Virginia Avenue to the courthouse in support of immigration reform. The march was even more successful than the students imagined and they found themselves unprepared to speak to large crowds. I saw David, one of my students, and grabbed him and encouraged him to take the stage and to find his immigrant voice. David, an immigrant who came to the US when he was 15, found his inner immigrant voice that day and spoke from his heart for 45 minutes to thousands of individuals about the privilege that so many of us take for granted and why immigration reform is important for all of us. That day, David found his voice by giving voice to others.
Tidbits & Takeaways
Our calling as administrators is more about managing budgets and programs and emails, it is about transforming students’ lives. I know that. I preach that. And yet, how often I forget that! Thank you, Sandra, for sharing your story and the deep personal connection and motivation that you bring to civic engagement work. Thank you for highlighting the purposeful and intentional work that goes into helping our students find their voice, both inside and outside of the classroom and how that builds up our students and our communities for a better future.
This post is a part of Callings & Conversations, a collection of conversations with administrators and champions of higher education about the work that we do and why it matters. If you would like to share your story, I welcome the opportunity to hear from you. Feel free to connect with me @LearnForwardHE.
Links of Interest
About the Author: Erin Payseur is the Associate Director of Civic Learning Initiatives at Baylor University. She has ten years of experience in civic engagement and higher education. As part of the Office of Community Engagement & Service, she develops sustainable frameworks for co-curricular service & social justice initiatives to guide students in considering their roles as leaders and citizens. She currently serves as the institutional contact for the NASPA Civic Learning & Democratic Engagement Lead Initiative. She has authored several articles and presented nationally on civic engagement, service, and leadership. In addition to her civic engagement work, she also serves as adjunct faculty for the leadership minor. She has a B.A. degree in Religion/ Philosophy from Presbyterian College and a M.Ed. in Higher Education & Student Affairs from the University of South Carolina.