As Bonita Rodriguez approached the end of high school, she felt lost. She had moved around a lot with her mother and began living on her own at age 16. No one in her family had gone to college. And as the child of immigrants she felt she had no road map for what came next in her American adulthood.
But Rodriguez would go on to serve as a member of the Marine Corps, become the first college graduate in her family, land a job in information technology and be named the 2020 Student Veteran of the Year.
“It took me time to know my self-worth,” Rodriguez told Know Your Value in an interview. “But I’ve realized I needed to stop being so quiet and start stepping up.”
That wasn’t always a comfortable place for Rodriquez. Her parents, Mexican immigrants, found challenges in America and her mother moved Rodriguez around Oregon as she changed jobs.
Life settled a bit more around middle school, when Rodriguez and her family lived in Greshman, Oregon, outside Portland. But when Rodriguez was 16 her parents divorced, and she moved out on her own. At the beginning of her senior year of high school she had no idea what she wanted next.
“I was definitely going through a hard time in life,” Rodriguez said. “I wanted to go to college but coming from immigrant parents you have that thought in the back of your mind that you won’t be able to afford it, and I had no idea how to go about it anyway.”
Then, a friend who was preparing for military enlistment introduced Rodriguez to her recruiter, who explained the benefits the military offers for paying for college.
“I did not know a single thing about the military before that day,” she said. “But the recruiter saw a spark in me — saw that I was motivated. And I loved the opportunity to do good for others and have a chance to go to college.”
The recruiter was up front about the challenges that journey would pose, but Rodriguez wasn’t fazed.
“I thought, this sounds tough, and I like challenges; I’ve gone through a bunch,” Rodriguez said. “It felt like there was a path, and one that didn’t have a burden of debt, to go be an adult.”
So she enlisted as a Marine in 2011, heading off to North Carolina for three months of boot camp that would lead to four years of active duty as a Marine and four years on the Individual Ready Reserve.
But from the very beginning, the challenges the recruiter had promised Rodriguez rushed to meet her. She broke her hand while completing a training course, heading to the medic only when her instructors insisted she get checked out because she was clearly injured. She had to stay and heal for a few months and begin the boot camp cycle all over again, but she saw the upside.
“It actually made the experience better because I got to have a closer relationship with my instructors,” Rodriguez explained. “They are super strict — they’re training you to become a Marine. But they came to see me when I was injured, which was so nice, and it was like, ‘Wait, you’re not scary?’ It showed me what was waiting on the other side.”
For Rodriguez, the other side — after boot camp and an extended month of special Marines training – was military schooling studying administration. She stayed in North Carolina for her entire active enlistment, serving as an administrative specialist at a training battalion, helping manage where other Marines did their own schooling.
The majority of Rodriguez’s leaders were “great male Marines,” including a Master Gunnery Sergeant who insisted at the end of her enlistment that she look into college, but her treatment as a female Marine certainly wasn’t perfect.
“There were some male Marines who would stereotype women,” Rodriguez said. “My best advice would be to be tough, face those challenges, but also don’t be afraid to go to leadership. It’s easy to want to stay quiet, but then it won’t be addressed.”
Rodriguez did have to call on leadership to address discriminatory comments from some of her fellow Marines.
“Sometimes people would look at me like, ‘I can’t believe you told them that.’ But you know, it stopped immediately and other female Marines came up to me and to say thank you. It was hard, but I realized I deserved better than that, and by speaking up you make clear what isn’t OK. You can get a better result.”
After her enlistment, inspired by her Master Gunnery Sergeant, Rodriguez ended up at Pace University in New York City, originally studying psychology, but she linked up with other student veterans who told her about the many job opportunities in information technology. She graduated with her degree in 2019 and now works as a Media Tech Associate at NBCUniversal on a rotational program, a role she said she loves.
“So, as lost as I felt those years ago in high school, I think I made the right choices,” Rodriguez said, laughing. “In the military you’re told what to do: You have a task and the mission is to be completed. You don’t learn to ask questions because you just do it. But I realized in civilian life, you have to ask for what you want and go for it.”