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Hennessy Rodriguez

Alum works to improve college experiences for underrepresented students

As the first member of her family to attend a university, Hennessy Rodriguez didn’t have any relatives at hand to help her navigate the experience of going to college.

Like many first-generation students, Rodriguez felt the burden of navigating the complexities of college while also doing well in her classes. But the Yakima Valley College alumnus and current University of Washington student is working to help students facing similar issues in her current role as one of five regional coordinators for the Washington Student Engagement Networks (WA-SEN).

WA-SEN brings together students from the state’s public and private, 2-year and 4-year colleges to engage and educate legislators about the importance of higher education for all Washingtonians. Rodriguez started her role as coordinator in June 2023 and will be working throughout the year to foster engagement between students and state legislators.

“I can relate to many students who are first-gen and I believe WA-SEN is a resource that can limit that feeling of having to do everything by yourself,” Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez’s region covers King County, including 11 schools located in 10 legislative districts. Those schools include eight community and technical colleges, along with two private universities and the University of Washington’s Seattle campus.

Over the summer, Rodriguez researched the schools and legislators in her region to learn as much background information as possible. As students returned for fall quarter, she set up outreach events to connect with students at the campuses in her region and engage them in WA-SEN’s activities.

The organization’s two main events are an annual Fall Summit, which prepares students to engage effectively with legislators, and a February advocacy day at the Capitol in Olympia.

“[During Olympia Day] we bring together students from across Washington to have the chance to tell their story in front of local legislators,” she said. “This is a great opportunity for students to inform legislators about the day-to-day struggles they, as well as those close to them, experience. Many times, legislators are simply not as well informed about students’ experiences as they should be. So, this once-a-year event can have an unparalleled impact when it comes to improving higher education’s ability to accommodate all students.”

“I have always known I wanted to attend a 4-year university. [YVC’s Running Start program] really helped me prepare for the journey to a university. ” — Hennessy Rodriguez

In addition to helping advocate for improvements to the college experiences of underrepresented and underprivileged students, Rodriguez said her work with WA-SEN has increased her professional knowledge and network.

“It also will help me develop my leadership skills and thus provide me with the opportunity to fill a variety of leadership roles in the future,” she said. “I really enjoy that one can shape this internship to cater to the specific goals one wants to achieve in overall life or career.”

Rodriguez, who earned her associate degree at YVC as a Running Start student, said she loved that the program accelerated her educational pathway.

“I have always known I wanted to attend a 4-year university,” Rodriguez said. “[Running Start] really helped me prepare for the journey to a university. I have always wanted to get ahead of my education and it was a great financial opportunity.”

She noted that her YVC courses and instructors taught her how to succeed in university courses, while also providing an opportunity for her to take a variety of classes and explore different interests.

At UW, she’s now pursuing her bachelor’s degree in the Community, Environment, and Planning program.

“I have always been interested in the environment and have wanted to improve the health of our environment,” Rodriguez said. “As I was coming into my second year at the university I fell in love with tackling the issue of environmental health from a societal perspective instead of from a scientific perspective.”

She noted her major opens a wide range of potential career fields along with the ability to build her own professional path.

Over the summer, her major provided an opportunity to participate in a study abroad program in Italy that allowed her to apply concepts from her classes to real world scenarios. The program, “Urban Design & Planning Italy: The Living Landscape – History, Culture & Agriculture in Tuscany,” included visits to the cities of Venice, Florence and Montepulciano.