ENGLEWOOD — For Nech Maríe Rodríguez, walking across the stage at Kennedy-King College Saturday represented a huge milestone after she overcame a number of challenges — including a debilitating car crash — to become student body president and earn a degree.
The 27-year-old wife and mother of three young children under 8 years of age is the first in her family to attend college and graduate.
Her difficulties began in Trenton, New Jersey, where she grew up. She was abused by a family member, she said.
“I grew up in a very dysfunctional household,” she said. “It was very difficult. My parents were always working. My mother had two jobs. I basically raised myself.”
Even as a child, Rodríguez, who now lives in Chicago Lawn, had big dreams to go to college one day and be successful, she said.
“I always told myself, ‘I do not want it to be this way forever,’” she said. “I always said, ‘Before I die, I will have a mansion and I will have everyone that I love live with me in that mansion.”
At the time, she was fixating on attending nearby Princeton University, she said.
Her guidance counselor believed in her early on and was working to get her into the right classes, which would put her on track for admission, Rodríguez said. But when the counselor abruptly left the school, her plans got derailed, she said.
She moved back and forth between Chicago and New Jersey. She ended up moving to Chicago for good when she got married and became pregnant.
She was attending Bogan High School in the Ashburn neighborhood but almost didn't graduate, she said. It was her husband, Jose Perez, who literally had to “drag” her out of bed in the mornings to go to school.
Rodríguez had her first two children a year apart so going to college wasn't an option then, she said.
Nech Maríe Rodríguez and her husband Jose Perez with their three children. [Provided by Nech Maríe Rodríguez]
In 2011, she made an attempt to go, but she said she wasn't “mentally prepared” and ended up not enrolling.
Then, she got into a serious car accident in October of that year near Ashburn. She hurt her back and neck, and suffered other injuries.
"It was pretty severe," she said. " ... It was traumatic."
She spent six months in physical therapy doing rehab.
What's more, she became severely depressed to the point she was hospitalized.
But as time passed, she realized she couldn't let her dream die.
“I asked myself, ‘What happened to the dreams I had when I was a child?’ I have children now, I have to do this for them,” she said.
Rodríguez said she was also just tired of living paycheck to paycheck and wanted to set a good example for her children.
She enrolled at Kennedy-King College in October of 2015 as a full-time student with the goal of getting her Associate’s Degree in a year. She excelled with a 3.75 grade point average, and became president of the Student Government Association.
She also held the position of District SGA Vice Chair and became a member of the international honor society Phi Theta Kappa.
The support system at Kennedy-King has been beyond amazing she said, thanking her professors and advisor.
Nech Maríe Rodríguez is president of Kennedy-King College's Student Government Association. [DNAinfo/Andrea V. Watson]
Raising three young children while sometimes taking up to six classes at a time has not been easy, she said.
“I have cried, I have stressed out a lot, I have had sleepless nights,” she said. “It has been extremely stressful, but I have learned to balance the stress with keeping myself busy with hobbies.”
Her husband has been extremely supportive, Rodríguez said.
“She’s super smart, funny, she’s everything,” Perez said. “I am really proud of her. We’ve been working together since she started high school. In the beginning, when she moved to Chicago to live with me, she was depressed and didn't want to finish high school. I’ve always been there for her.”
He said she’s setting a great example for the children, which is why they take them to her speaking engagements or induction ceremonies.
“I say, ‘Look at mommy. She’s doing this for you,'" he said. "I want them to feel proud of her and see what she’s doing.'”
Rodríguez is enrolling at Loyola where she’ll will pursue a bachelor’s degree in psychology.
She ultimately wants to get her doctorate in the discipline and apply to Princeton for law school. She also wants to open up a practice for those who can’t afford “good quality therapy,” she said.
“People like me, and their families — when something happens they just want to push it under the rug and act like it never happened,” Rodríguez said. “But, no, those are issues. You can suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which is one of my issues, depression, anxiety, and not have the support.”
She said she still has plenty to accomplish in life. Instead of dropping out, she said she used her hurt and disappointment to fuel her motivation. She encourages others to do the same.
“I never gave up,” Rodríguez said. “You go through the worse in life, you could hit rock bottom. I felt that I literally had to drag myself to keep going and I still did. I came from the bottom and I’m trying to work myself up.”