Often in life, we encounter moments of passion so strong that we want to hold onto them forever — even though we know well their fleeting form doesn’t allow us to do that.
For some, however, these moments can translate into an undeniable calling, and those lucky enough to experience that do so at just the right time.
Glades Central High School valedictorian Gisell Rodriguez knows just what that feels like.
Rodriguez, 17, is accustomed to juggling schoolwork with an active presence in her community, but it was at an event volunteering with VSA International her junior year that she realized her desire to help children with special needs. The program, she explained, allowed kids with mental and physical disabilities from the tri-city area — including Belle Glade, Pahokee and South Bay — to come together and explore an artistic outlet.
Rodriguez assisted by setting up booths and helping on the stage (for performing arts). Her favorite part of the day was acting as an audience with the other high school volunteers while the kids performed. “It allows them to have fun artistically, and that’s really where I got inspired,” she said. “It just clicked.”
Rodriguez also found fulfillment working at the Boys & Girls Club of Palm Beach County, where she’s served as a mentor to younger members. She also worked with the older mentors at the Glades Teen Center, where she found her own.
The Belle Glade resident has also taken part in the Stop the Burn Campaign with the Sierra Club, where she meets with others in the initiative to try to stop sugar cane burning and push the more sustainable alternative of green harvesting. She said the problem is that the ash and pollution “gives our residents asthma” and “(it’s) not fair to areas like Clewiston,” a city west of Belle Glade most at risk of health effects because of its proximity to sugar cane plantations established around the southern rim of Lake Okeechobee.
As far as high school clubs and organizations go, Rodriguez participated in the yearbook committee; debate club; Spanish book club, where she served as president her sophomore year; and the Spanish National Honors Society, serving as president her junior year and from which she received a certificate of recognition for invaluable service. She also recalled, “I was honored and privileged to be a part of the High 5 club,” an organization the Glades Central principal founded to recognize students for achieving high test scores on state-mandated exams.
But Rodriguez, who will graduate with a 3.79 GPA and 5.05 HPA, wasn’t necessarily striving to be the school’s top student. “I just wanted to see my boundaries,” she said. The teen took 11 courses her junior year out of the normal seven, in a combination of classes at school and through Florida Virtual School online and dual-enrollment at Palm Beach State College’s Belle Glade campus. “I wanted to see where I could go and it took me to being the valedictorian.”
The journey wasn’t exactly easy, either, “I definitely found a balance,” she said. Rodriguez noted incorporating one-hour power naps into her weekly routine helped. “I bought my planner and made use of my time efficiently … (it) definitely takes determination, but at the end of the day, if you want something, you just have to put in the effort to get it.”
Rodriguez does admit her demanding schedule sacrificed spending time with her parents, mother Marciel Hernandez and father Otoniel Rodriguez. “I get home, take a one-hour nap … get back to doing homework.” By the time she was finally free to see them, they were already in bed around 9 p.m. Rodriguez also has a 28-year-old brother, Ismarvega.
Rodriguez is finishing up her scholarship applications, of which she has received three: a nonrenewable scholarship awarded by the South Florida Fair ($1,500); a renewable ($2,500) scholarship from the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Foundation per year ($10,000 over four years); and one from Teamwork USA ($3,000). Her looser schedule has allotted her time to get lunch with her mom, and she’s enjoyed serving as a student aide at school because “I want to become a school psychologist … I want to help students with mental disabilities” and it’s the closest thing she has to it for the time being.
The ambitious student, who was accepted into nearly every state school, including the University of Florida, Florida State University, University of Central Florida, University of South Florida, Barry University and Nova Southeastern University, heads to Florida International University to study psychology. “The campus definitely had a spark,” Rodriguez said.
She will be the first in her family to go to college.
Rodriguez would advise other students “not to aim to be No. 1, but focus on being the best they can … you have to know your boundaries.” Being valedictorian “makes me feel like I am successfully carrying on my family’s legacy.”
See valedictorians’ stories at palmbeachpost.com/valedictorians/