During Northeastern Illinois University’s December 2019 Commencement ceremony, one couple celebrated their 20th year of marriage with very special gifts: their diplomas.
Wearing their blue graduation caps and gowns, Ruby and Joel Rodriguez crossed the stage, one after the other, on Dec. 15 to collect their bachelor’s degrees from the University Without Walls (UWW) program. Their caps were decorated with glittery golden letters to read, “It doesn’t matter where you are going ...” and “It’s who you have beside you!”
As community organizers on Chicago’s South Side, Ruby and Joel work for the Southwest Organizing Project (SWOP), which focuses on five main issues: health, education, immigration, housing and safety. They organize with community residents and institutions to build better neighborhoods.
They were a perfect match for UWW, a nontraditional degree program that acknowledges and validates college level learning that happens outside of college for students seeking a bachelor of arts or bachelor of science degree. Graduation is based on demonstrated learning outcomes in the field of study rather than credit hours completed.
Joel has always worked in nonprofits and had various certifications that he’d earned over the years that the University was able to translate into credits.
“We still had to meet the requirements for social sciences and other areas, but the independent studies that my advisor and I created were around social services and youth and family,” Joel said. “I learned things about food deserts and the way they impact black and brown communities. I learned about the new ways people in the medical field are treating adolescent addictions. It was all aligned to the work that I’m doing. It complemented the work that I’m doing now, and I learned things that I think are going to be valuable for the work that I want to continue to do.”
Ruby has been a professional in the finance industry for more than 20 years with banks and mortgage companies. She had some college credits but never completed her bachelor’s degree. Because of her interest in finance, she conducted independent studies to understand redlining, or a systematic practice of inequity used to exclude minorities from being able to own property or have access to other services based on neighborhood lines, and the facets that historically lead to housing inequity.
“My interest was always in finance, in the business sector,” Ruby said. “I recently transitioned into the nonprofit sector and am now at SWOP, bringing my skills and trying to build and give back to the community. Still using my finance and economic background, I was able to look at the issue and be more social justice oriented to use my skills to help educate and empower the people in my community to build themselves up.”
Ruby and Joel have four children—Joshua, Josiah, Jezreel and their eldest, Joel J., who is currently in college. Ruby and Joel had always hoped to complete their bachelor’s degrees, but work and life responsibilities took precedence.
“Once you start marriage and raising a family, it’s hard to finish,” Ruby said. “My focus turned toward the kids. Now that three are in high school and one is in college, we figured if we don’t do it now, we’re never going to do it.”
Joel and Ruby acknowledge that it was a challenge to complete their degrees, and know their children saw how hard it could be. Yet, they also know it was worth it.
“The kids are excited,” Joel said. “They really saw us struggle. I mean, there were countless nights where we were trying to get all of this work done while working and addressing their needs. They’re excited, but they’re asking questions because they’re intrigued that we’re pursuing our education at this age. It’s a unique experience.”
All four of their children and their young granddaughter, Keziah, were on hand to witness Ruby and Joel turn their tassels to the left, cross the stage and receive their diploma covers.
“We’re super proud,” said Joel J., who expects to earn his associate degree from Daley College next year. “They’ve been talking about going back to school for a while. So, to see them graduate while I’m in college about to graduate, it’s amazing.”
“Like many UWW students, their contributions to their community are impressive,” Sanborn said. “Their UWW degree validates their accomplishments and prepares them to take even stronger leadership roles in their community.”
Joel and Ruby are both grateful to Northeastern for providing them with the opportunity to earn their degrees with the flexibility they needed to maintain their jobs and support their children while also going to classes.
“One of the fears that I had was being this old guy in a class with a bunch of young people, but it was great that the classes had students diverse in age and ethnic background,” Joel said. “I learned so much from other people. It was a great experience. It is just a great program.”
Ruby, too, is grateful for the UWW program.
“It offered an opportunity that I felt I wasn’t ever going to have,” she said. “I didn’t see myself going back toward the traditional education path. It just seemed overwhelming to me. The way the program is structured is really for the working person and is really the only reason why I attempted it. It drew me in and thankfully it’s what I needed for me to get to this point in my life.”
Now that they both have their bachelor’s degrees, Ruby and Joel are considering taking their education even further to earn master’s degrees. While Joel is considering focusing on Urban Community Studies, Ruby is still exploring her program options. No matter the concentration, they’re both thinking about applying to Northeastern.
“Now that I started I don’t want to stop,” Ruby said. “I know that the first place I would look is Northeastern because I’m familiar and I already know the kind of support I will receive.”
Top photo: Ruby and Joel Rodriguez (center) surrounded by their children and grandchild (from left) Joshua, Keziah, Josiah, Joel J. and Jezreel at Northeastern's December 2019 Commencement ceremony.