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First-generation college student overcomes medical barriers, graduates with honors

When Georgia Southern University special education major Savannah Rodriquez completed her final field placement at Sallie Zetterower Elementary School on April 30, she became the first college graduate in her family. However, there was a time that Rodriquez was told she may not graduate high school.

At the end of her sophomore year of high school, Rodriquez broke her ankle playing softball, which was followed by complications and required almost a dozen surgeries over the next two years to correct.  

“I was only able to go to school for about 40 days of my senior year,” said Rodriquez. “I had to do a hospital-homebound option to complete my school work. Everyone told me that I could earn my high school diploma, but I wouldn’t get to walk across the stage and graduate with my class.”

Yet she did. While Rodriquez said it wasn’t her strongest year of high school, she was determined to graduate with her peers. She decided not to stop there.

“I knew I wanted to go to college,” she said. “I wanted to do more.”

Rodriquez enrolled as an education major at Armstrong State University and later transferred to Georgia Southern’s Statesboro Campus.

“The day before my parents brought me to Savannah, I still had a central IV line because I had been in and out of the hospital so much,” she explained. “My mother was not thrilled. To this day, she would say that day was one of the worst feelings of her life — leaving me four hours away after a two-year fiasco of trying to figure out what was going on with my ankle and my health.”

Rodriguez didn’t have time to wallow in her health issues. She was also helping to raise her fiancé Taylor’s child who she considers to be her own.

“When I started dating my fiancé, Ryan was only six months old,” she explained. “So I have always been a part of her life that she can remember.”

In 2020, Ryan and Taylor tested positive for COVID-19. Due to respiratory issues from the virus, Ryan spent months in and out of the hospital.

“At the beginning of her hospital stay, she was having a lot of respiratory issues so they were transitioning her on and off of a ventilator,” said Rodriquez. “It was scary. And yet when she came home, I was required to distance myself from her and that was so hard.”

The family moved to Hinesville to be closer to the Fort Stewart Base where Taylor is stationed and Ryan was being hospitalized. Some of her classes were hybrid, which allowed her to care for her family while completing online coursework.

Nothing was going to stop Rodriquez from finishing her degree, and she did so with honors being named a Goizueta Foundation Scholars Fund recipient in fall 2020. This week, she graduates cum laude.

“I knew the odds were not in my favor when I started college,” she said. “I was the only one in my cohort that had a child at home. I was the only one in my cohort until recently that had a fiancé. And he is military so there is a level of difficulty that adds with his field work and deployments. But my professors were amazing. Mrs. Cooper and Dr. Fisher listened to me. They have seen me cry, probably more times than any professor should, but they kept pushing and supporting me.”

For the fall, Rodriquez has accepted a position at Paulding County’s Irma C. Austin Middle School. She has also been accepted into the College of Education’s M.Ed. Special Education program and will continue her studies.

“I feel like I can do more,” she said. “I am so excited about being a Double Eagle, and I am hoping I can just keep going at Georgia Southern to earn a specialist degree and maybe a doctorate. I could be Dr. Rodriquez. If I can handle all I have over the past eight years of my life, I can handle this.”

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