The unexpected odyssey began when Ashlea Rodriguez, then 20, on her first Air Force duty assignment and pregnant with her first child, noticed a friend napping in her car at their base in Washington.
Rodriguez tapped on the car window to ask what was up. The woman, a close friend and co-worker, explained that she was catching some z’s between work and her night class at community college while her husband, with whom she shared a car, was working out.
“Why don’t you take a college class with me next semester?” the friend asked.
“OK,” Rodriguez replied. “I’ll see how I do. Why not?”
The odyssey will reach its unexpected destination Saturday, eight years and studies at no fewer than five colleges on three continents later. Rodriguez, now a 31-year-old mother of three and Air Force veteran, will walk onto a Mid-America Center stage, deliver the student speech at Bellevue University’s spring 2022 commencement of 640 students and claim her master’s degree in business administration.
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She and her husband, Steve, a U.S. Army veteran, will take a trip for fun to celebrate — they’ll drive their kids to Florida.
Along the way of her educational odyssey, like many nontraditional college students, Rodriguez found willpower and talents she didn’t know she had. She developed a knack for making higher education systems work for her, and for finding the support she needed to navigate through them. Rodriguez is already putting those skills to work for other people as a project coordinator in Bellevue University’s Mental Health Clinical Counseling program.
“My story is really about how the support of other people can create those opportunities that people wouldn’t normally take, those risks (to try things) that they don’t think they’re competent enough to do,” Rodriguez said. “And how giving people the support that they need, or the guidance, or taking the extra time can help them choose a path that they wouldn’t have chosen before.”
Education wasn’t exactly Rodriguez’s passion while growing up in Decatur, Nebraska.
“I was not exceptional in high school,” she said. “I procrastinated and did the work I needed to do to pull my grades up to a D.”
She obtained her high school diploma by independent study through the University of Nebraska. She enrolled at Metropolitan Community College in Omaha, but she quit during her freshman year after she got her first bill from the college. Working in the service industry, driving 45 minutes to school each way, she just couldn’t afford school.
Rodriguez didn’t have a clear idea of what she wanted to do.
“I had a lot of friends with military affiliations,” she said. “So I just went to a recruiter. I said: What can you do for me? And I was gone in two weeks.”
Her first Air Force duty assignment was at Fairchild Air Force Base outside Spokane, Washington. Rodriguez worked in a pediatrics department with “amazing” doctors who were determined to not just treat symptoms, but to find answers to help people with whatever they were struggling with.
“A lot of our job description was, how can we help these young moms who have children and don’t have their family, and probably have a spouse whose priorities lie with their duty?” Rodriguez said. “So now they’re juggling a world that they never knew they would be in and where’s their resources?”
Rodriguez helped the parents find and connect with resources, experience that has helped her through her college odyssey and to help people in her work.
She didn’t know what field she wanted to go into when she took that first class at Spokane Falls Community College’s education center at Fairchild AFB. She doesn’t remember what that class was. But she does remember the friend who made her think she should try it, and the experience helping her believe she could do it. The class went well. She went on to take more.
“I don’t even know if she really noticed she was giving me the support,” Rodriguez said. “She literally was just being kind. ... I mean, she is a loudmouth, Jamaican girl from the South. And here I am a little Midwest girl whose first plane ride was to basic training. I don’t know if I would have gotten out of my shell.”
After 1½ years in Washington, Rodriguez, by then a mother, was sent to an Air Force base in Japan. She wanted to work toward a degree in health care, but couldn’t find those classes on bases overseas. She’s the kind of person who needs classes in person, so none of her studies have been online until her graduate classes during the pandemic. She decided to focus on business administration.
While on active duty in Japan, Rodriguez knocked out some of her lower-level classes though the College Level Examination Program. After a year in Japan, she got out of the military — and her husband went into it.
He joined a U.S. Army Airborne division. She moved back to Nebraska to have her second child where family could help while her husband went to eight months of training. They were in a kind of limbo, not knowing where they would be sent, and when she would stop living between families and could get back on track with school.
They got orders to go to Italy.
“That was a huge frustration, but it turned out to be a blessing in disguise,” Rodriguez said.
She enrolled in the University of Maryland Global Campus Europe. She took night classes on base with soldiers. The classes were four hours long, and met once or twice a week. Her husband was away on duty for his demanding job for all but about six months of their 2½ years in Italy. That meant that along with her notebooks, she’d often take a baby to class because she was still nursing.
She kept plugging away toward her degree through more moves. Her husband got posted to North Carolina. She took classes in Christianity at Campbell University that could apply to her degree and offered insight that regular business classes didn’t have. Her husband left the Army but went to Kuwait as a contractor. That occasioned a move back to Nebraska with now three children, a year left on her degree — and another hurdle.
“Because I had done all of most of my schoolwork at military classes, they were eight-week classes, and a lot of the colleges that I called around here at first were not going to accept about a year of those classes, the Christianity classes, or just the different classes that I had,” Rodriguez said.
She also wanted to attend in person, in part because her post-military benefits paid more for in-person classes than for online. She found Nebraska Wesleyan University’s Omaha campus. It would take all her credits. Her dad could drive down from Decatur to help with child care and she powered through until she had two classes left.
One was an ethics course. Wesleyan only offered the undergraduate version in Lincoln but had the graduate-level class in Omaha. Rodriguez persuaded them to let her take the graduate class. She was intimidated at first, and her children came to view the computer as their enemy because of all the reading and writing she had to do, but she aced it.
That left an internship. At the height of the pandemic. When her children were stuck at home because of COVID.
She said her advisers at Wesleyan couldn’t help her find a company to do her internship. Rodriguez called multiple companies and got denied. She started looking for veterans’ resources, seeking the unity and mutual support she had experience in. She found Bellevue University’s Military Veteran Services Center. They crafted an internship for her — updating their community resource information for veterans.
“She did it in record time,” said Heather Carroll, manager of the Military Veteran Services Center. “Then we were able to sign her off, and she was able to graduate. And because of the services that are offered here in this facility, and how it takes care of the veterans in the process, she decided that she wanted to become a master’s degree student here at the university as well.”
Rodriguez finally got her bachelor’s degree in 2020. Now, she has earned a master’s as well. And her kids — Tobias, 9, Vivian, 7, and Abraham, 5 — have earned a trip to Disney World and the beach. What’s a 20-hour car ride when you’ve been on an eight-year educational odyssey like Rodriguez has?