by Beverly James
When Maria Alejandra Rodriguez fled guerilla rebels who had kidnapped her father and killed her mother, she thought she would spend a few months in the United States and return to her native Colombia. Instead, she was forced to learn a new language, assimilate into a different culture and craft a new future.
On May 3, Rodriguez was one of 23 dental hygiene students participating in the Georgia Perimeter College commencement exercise. She also was named the Dental Hygiene department’s top student.
Rodriguez was a young girl growing up in the bustling city of Bogota, Colombia, where her father owned a textile mill. But he loved spending weekends four hours away in the countryside, tending to a rice farm that gave him time to work the land and think about life. It was a hobby that would cost the family dearly.
“My father was kidnapped from the rice farm and held for ransom,” Rodriguez says. “When my mother went to pay part of the ransom during his first year of captivity, the guerillas took the money and killed her.” Her father would be held for an additional two years.
Meanwhile, government agents rushed Rodriguez, then 17, and her younger brother out of the country for their own safety. They lived with relatives in Woodstock, Ga., and began assimilating into American society.
Rodriguez took English classes at Kennesaw State University for a year and began working in a pediatric dental office. Still, she was wracked with sadness and guilt over leaving her father behind.
“I was in my comfort zone in Colombia; I didn’t want to leave and I was just heartbroken. But it wasn’t safe for us to stay there,” Rodriguez says. “I thought I would only be here for a few months, but the government told us that it would be too dangerous to come back. I realized that I would have to stay in the United States, and it took me several years to get used to the culture and learn the language.”
Rodriguez stayed busy and focused on taking core classes at Kennesaw State to become a dental hygienist. She loved her job at the dental office and realized that she had a passion for helping people.
During that time, the guerillas released her father, and the family was reunited in the United States. That was a turning point for Rodriguez, who had just been accepted into the GPC dental hygiene program.
“Once he was released, my life came back. I realized I could do anything and move on with my life in my new country and find success,” she says. “I became a citizen two years ago and got married. I am so grateful for all of the opportunities that this country offers.”
As for being the dental hygiene department’s top student, Rodriguez says she finds it hard to believe she was chosen for the honor.
“I’ve always been very disciplined and try to give 150 percent to work and school. I have to work hard to get the grades, because I don’t think I am necessarily the smartest student,” she says. “There are so many really smart people in my class that I never thought I was at top of the class. I am very blessed and very happy and very proud of myself.”