She grew up in the south Bronx, where she witnessed death and people engaging in prostitution and spent five years homeless as a teen. Today, Michelle Rodriguez has a master’s degree and works for BronxWorks.
Rodriguez, 39, of Mott Haven, did not live a privileged life, but she overcame a lot and has never given up.
“When I was a kid I never thought I would reach the age of 21,” Rodriguez said.
Her parents divorced when she was 3 and her father was a distant memory most of her life. She did not come from a close-knit family and like many in the Bronx in the late 80s and early 90s, crack and cocaine were a huge part of life.
She never did drugs but many people around her did, including her mom, Sandra. Sandra chose drugs over her daughter and kicked her out of their home at 13.
“At that time I couldn’t understand why my mother would do that to her only daughter,” she said. “Maybe she just didn’t like me.”
She was left crying in the streets with her stuff when her neighbor, who heard the whole exchange, ran and took her in. Rodriguez stayed with her for two years and while there, was a live-in babysitter making $40 a week.
But not wanting to impose on the woman and her child, she was often outside seeing things no other kid should witness.
She continued to move. She roomed with a friend for a while, reconnected with her dad and stayed with him in Philadelphia for a year and then went to Yonkers with her older brother.
She recalled that all of this was emotionally draining.
“I wrote a lot,” she recalled. “I had journals. I truly was angry and upset. I was a child, I couldn’t process what was happening.
At 19 she had her first child, a daughter, Shanya. Needing to provide, she signed up for Job Corps and was set to move to Maine. But during that time she started a relationship and had her second daughter, Nyna Rattray, a year later.
After having two children she realized she wanted to make amends with her mom. She reached out and her recollection of what occurred was very different than her mother’s.
Her mom never apologized but Rodriguez forgave her.
“It was very difficult at first to talk to her,” she explained. “I realized the way I was treated was still giving me nightmares. Once you become a parent you view things differently. I do not hold this against my mom. At the time, parents do what they can.”
She lived in Philadelphia from 2002 to 2008. Rodriguez loved her time in the City of Brotherly Love. While there, she obtained her GED diploma, her certified nursing assistant degree, learned how to do hair and studied computer business.
She returned to New York in 2009 and struggled to find a career or good job. At one point, she lived in a shelter with her family but eventually things got on the right track.
In 2016, she enrolled at Metropolitan College of New York, where she became the first person in her family to go to college and made the dean’s list five times.
She graduated in 2019 with a Bachelor’s of Professional Studies in Human Services and completed her master’s in Public Administration in May.
“I’m still in shock,” Rodriguez said. “From the day that I gave birth to my first child I wanted to go to college. My goal was to be a role model to my children.”
Things really came full circle when she landed a job with nonprofit BronxWorks as a care manager for the Care Coordination Program. She was now in a position to help people like herself.
Rodriguez, has only been there a year but has aspirations of one day being an assistant director.
“I always knew one day I’m going to work for them,” Rodriguez exclaimed. “I’m humbled by it. I’m also driven by it. To tell the truth, I’m always in shock. I’m always in awe.”