You can see the emotion on his face when he says this. While his family valued education and knew its importance, he says the reality of growing up in a poor community was that most of his family and his neighbors didn’t feel valued in educational institutions. As a result, a life in the fields, or on the streets or in the graveyard—in the case of some of his friends, some of the boys he grew up with—was what many ended up with.
“It’s scary to think where I would be right now without West Hills,” says Rodolfo Rodriguez, West Hills College Coalinga/North District Center Firebaugh Sociology Instructor.
“I go and visit friends all the time and they’ve gone down different paths,” he said. “Some of them are not doing well and some are on drugs. I go to the cemetery and I talk to my friends at least once a month and I tell them about how I’m doing. I tell them about how thankful I am to have this position because who knows? That could have been me.” Rodriguez describes being a Sociology Instructor at West Hills College Coalinga and North District Center Firebaugh as his “dream job.” Every day, he gets to work with and inspire kids that remind him a lot of him when he was younger. Looking at his past and the trajectory he’s taken to get to this point, it’s easy to see why. He was once in their shoes, sometimes having sat in the exact same seat when he was a student at WHCC.
Rodriguez’s first interaction with West Hills College Coalinga was at the tender age of 15. He was rebellious, chomping at the bit of teenagehood, and his mother saw some guidance in the form of the All Youth One Program, a county program that is housed at and partners with West Hills College Coalinga.
Rodriguez, though initially hesitant, found inspiration there.
“I was upset, frustrated and had a lot of anger at that age,” he said. “But all these individuals there took the time out of their busy day to sit down and talk to me and let me vent.”
He was in awe of the fact that all the people giving him advice, all the people talking to him, had college degrees. It got him thinking.
April Betterson has been with Workforce Connection—which oversees the All Youth One Program at WHCC—since Rodriguez joined the program.
She’s seen him grow from a young man facing an uncertain future to a teacher of students much like him.
“Rodolfo is truly an example of what our program strives to do each and every day for our youth,” she said. “He was an outstanding participant in our program. Rodolfo completed assessments, job readiness, mock interviews, and work experience while in our program. He was one of those students you knew would make a difference and become successful. He was always willing to do whatever it took to flourish in our program.” Not without struggle, Rodriguez succeeded, graduating from high school and then from West Hills College Coalinga in 2011. He has fond memories of his time at WHCC.
“I made a lot of friends and I was able to gain a lot of social and cultural capital,” he said. “I was able to network. Being at West Hills and having the mentors and advisors I had was so important. I know the importance of West Hills College Coalinga to this community.” After graduating, Rodriguez headed for California State University Sacramento, where he majored in sociology and ethnic studies with an emphasis in Chicano studies. He earned a place in the McNair Scholars Program and started conducting independent research on his passion: farmworkers on the westside of Fresno County. He earned his bachelor’s degree and then faced a choice: would he pursue further education? He began the sociology master’s degree program at CSU Sacramento before transferring to UC Merced at the advice of his mentor, where he enrolled in a dual degree program to earn both his master’s degree and doctorate.
“I had imposter’s syndrome until that point,” said Rodriguez. “I didn’t think that I belonged in graduate school. I was one of the only Latino students in my class. Me getting into this doctorate program broke a lot of internal barriers. It was a huge accomplishment personally, not just for me but my family.” He thrived in the program and, more importantly, found his great love: teaching. As a graduate student, student teaching was part of the job. Through various organizations of which he was a part, Rodriguez also did college outreach, encouraging students to attend college and reach for their dreams.
After that experience, he decided. He wanted to come back to the Central Valley and reach students living lives much like the life he had lived in Coalinga before coming to West Hills. Poor but proud and driven. Uneducated but striving for greater, often while facing many stumbling blocks. Working night shifts and then rolling into class at 8 a.m. He knows the world his students inhabit every day. After receiving his master’s degree from UC Merced, he began teaching at West Hills College Coalinga as an adjunct before getting a once in a lifetime opportunity when a full-time Sociology appointment opened up. Now, he’s spending his time influencing students at West Hills College Coalinga and North District Center Firebaugh.
Most of all, he tries to connect with them and remind them that people like them, people like him, do get master’s degrees. They do get jobs other than fieldwork. They do succeed. “I try to do my best to be a great instructor, a great colleague, because without this community, without West Hills I wouldn’t be who I am today,” he said. “I want my students to feel like their experience and knowledge is important and accepted in my classroom because I’ve been there. I don’t see them as an empty vessel or a piggy bank to be filled with knowledge. I value their experience and their reality.” Rodriguez talks about real topics in the classroom, from changes in the family structure in the 21st century to the dangers of farmwork. He also makes sure the students know that graduate students and those pursuing higher education are just people.
“I’m bringing in some of my friends from Merced to talk to the students because I want them to see that they’re just normal people,” he said. “Getting a degree is difficult but not impossible. I want my students to see that it’s within their reach.”
And that's Rodolfo's ultimate goal: to help his students see themselves in him and all that his success demonstrates is possible.