Eastside High School and Emory University graduate Wendy Rodriguez has found her home. She plans to make impactful connections through her two businesses and her work as a board member of the Newton Education Foundation.

by Gabriel Stovall

Wendy Rodriguez considers Newton County home, which is saying something for the 29-year-old Eastside High School and Emory University Graduate when considering her upbringing, family lineage and experiences. Rodriguez has lived in Covington since she was 7 years old. Before then, it was Norcross. Before then, it was Miami. Her parents are from Bogota, Colombia. She admits to an intriguing background, but it also meant finding it difficult to feel like she belonged.

“You feel like an outsider to a degree,” Rodriguez said. “I don’t fit in the box. When I’m here in America, people say, ‘You don’t look American.’ When I go to Colombia, where my parents are from, they’ll say, ‘You’re saying all the right things, but you don’t sound like you’re from here.’” 

To underscore that notion, she recalls a time when, while working at Scoops and still in high school, she answered the phone to speak with a customer. When the customer actually came into the store to see her in person, it was difficult for them to hide the mild shock on their face. 

“They came in and said, ‘Oh my God. You’re not what I was expecting. Your voice didn’t match, and I was expecting to see a white woman,’” Rodriguez said. 

“I hope to connect with students and give them tools that I either didn’t have or didn’t know I could have.”

Wendy Rodriguez

As an adult, it can be easier to glorify being contrarian—the piece that does not seem to fit. That is not the case when you are finding your way as a teenager and future first-generation college student. It may be why Rodriguez participated in virtually everything when she was at Eastside. 

“I was an honor grad,” Rodriguez said, “but I was involved in so much. Tennis. Marching band. Everything except maybe football. It was literally everything the yearbook could fit. The yearbook editor actually told me, ‘I can’t put you in every single thing and on every single page,’ and I was like, ‘Why not?’” She found her place collegiately at Emory thanks to her father’s suggestion. “Because of my upbringing, I knew there was a thing called college,” she said. “I knew it was a thing I had to do before med school, but it was very abstract. My dad came to me my junior year of high school and said, ‘Wendy, Emory has the best med school. You should go there.’” 

Turns out, it would be the only school to which she would apply, and despite some doubts from others who tried to advise her on college choice, she got in. Rodriguez graduated in 2017 with a degree in neuroscience and behavioral biology. She proudly donned an Emory T-shirt while speaking on her experiences, so there is certainly no shame in it, but in hindsight, Rodriguez admits she wishes she would have broadened her collegiate horizons just a bit. 

“Sometimes I wish I hadn’t limited myself to just one school,” she said. “Now, I’d tell high school students here to look beyond Newton County. Look beyond the state of Georgia. Sometimes I think about what would’ve happened if I applied to a school like Harvard or something like that. I want students now to know their options.”

Enter Rodriguez’s current, post-grad life and the place where she has finally found her fit. After school, she returned to the area to take a job at a med-tech company. She has since found new ways to make her old stomping grounds feel like home all over again, from her photography business, W. Rodriguez Photography, to a small-business consulting company, Herencia Solutions. Rodriguez started both entities to scratch her creative itch and to provide help and connections to resources to everyone from small businesses to high school and college-bound students. In the process, she bought a house in Newton County and has been recently appointed to the board of the Newton Education Foundation. It gives her an opportunity to give back to the community that provided so much for her. 

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“When I was in Newton County as a student, I didn’t realize how much of a different person I was compared to my peers,” she said. “Not just socio-economically, but I clearly didn’t look like my peers. I never realized the difference until just recently I saw myself in some prom pictures, and I was the only person of color. It didn’t hit me until I went to Emory where there were so many people from different cultures and I had the chance to see that. Here in Newton County, when I was a high school student, diversity was just white and black. At Emory, I saw other cultures that were so different.” 

Upon returning to Newton County, Rodriguez has seen an uptick in that kind of diversity settling into the area. 

“It’s so different than just six or seven years ago,” she said. “You’re seeing this growth in diversity, and it’s not just Latinas coming in. I walk and I see Middle Eastern families, and you can tell their culture by what they’re garbing. You can hear families talking to each other in different languages, and I just think it’s so beautiful to see some of that kind of diversity here.” 

Still, she loves the familiarity of Newton County just as much, along with the opportunity to run into people she has known since childhood. 

“I love that I can walk my dogs and run into my childhood third grade teacher,” she said. “I love that I can run into my mentor, Nancy Schultz. I can run into the chairman. I run into the different commissioners [and] the mom-and-pop shops that have been around forever, and they recognize me.” 

Rodriguez wants to contribute to the mix of new and old. She calls it a perfect balance.

“I came back here not only because of a job or family or community,” she said, “but I want to pour into the community that poured so much into me.” 

That means using her photography business to capture untold stories in picture form around the county and using her consulting firm to help small business navigate tricky legal waters. It also means using her position on the NEF’s board to give students more education on what is available to them in Newton County and beyond. Because of the area’s shifting demographics, Rodriguez will not be surprised to see other first-generation college students trying to find their fit, just as she did. Now armed with her own sense of belonging and opportunities to know her community in fresh ways, she cannot wait to make a more profound impact in the place she calls home. 

“I just want to be able to give back in any way I can,” Rodriguez said. “Maybe it’s not always monetarily but providing a fountain of knowledge. I hope to connect with students and give them tools that I either didn’t have or didn’t know I could have. I want to connect them, not just to alums but to each other. In the last year of just sort of trying to figure out what’s next, I’m finding things that bring me joy, things I’m passionate about: connecting people and helping others. We have so many bubbles we can connect people to around here. I just think that that’s what I’m good at and that’s why I’m here. This is home, and where I plan to stay.” 

For information on the Newton Education Foundation, visit newtoneducationfoundation.org.

Click here to read more stories by Gabriel Stovall. 

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