When PhD candidate Yuliana Rodriguez ’09, ’11 MS graduated from high school, she was 5th in her class – never mind that English was her second language. Even so, this star student’s requests for college guidance went unanswered.

Fortunately, UNCG was a different experience. “There are pockets of hope in Yuliana’s story,” says Dr. Heather Helms, her professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies. “Sometimes students need someone to notice them. That’s what UNCG does very well.”

Helms learned about Rodriguez through her colleague, Dr. Andrew Supple. He saw an opportunity for the two to partner on Helms’ research studying marital quality among Hispanic immigrants in North Carolina.

Helms’ study, which is funded through the USDA, is one of the few in the nation that looks at marital challenges of a minority population.

Rodriguez joined the project her junior year and continued conducting interviews and managing data through the completion of her master’s degree. She grew to become an accomplished researcher, presenting findings at regional and national conferences. She also found that she could help people who are in the very place she had been – wanting to advance their education levels and contribute to their families and communities, but unsure how.

Giving back to the community makes my education more meaningful.

She recounts how during every interview, the parents would eventually ask her to share her story of pursuing not just one, but multiple degrees. They wanted to know how they could help advance their children’s education.

“I became attached to the idea of helping them at a deeper level. I want to make sure parents know their children have the capacity to succeed. That there are resources and people who care.”

People who care. Like Heather Helms.

Helms was impressed by Rodriguez’ thoughtfully written papers. She encouraged her to speak up more in class. She mentored her as a research assistant. She worked with Mary Crowe in the Office of Undergraduate Research to fund a research assistantship so Rodriguez wouldn’t have to work so many jobs. And she nominated her for the Graduate School Inclusiveness Fellowship Award, which Rodriguez won.

“Dr. Helms made me feel I could make a difference.” She also inspired her to pursue advanced degrees.

Helms was recently awarded the Alumni Senior Faculty Teaching Excellence Award for exactly these kinds of contributions. “This is why I’m here at UNCG,” she says. “I wouldn’t trade this for anything.  I have my feet in both worlds, teaching and research. My colleagues and I experience tremendous joy in helping students realize their dreams.”

Rodriguez’ dreams continue to grow as she grows. Her evolution has taken her from those high school days when she wondered if a college degree was achievable to where she is now – able to see a PhD in her future and a career spent educating and helping others. She plans to be a professor.

As for the students following behind her, Rodriguez will make sure they have the information she had to discover on her own – how to apply for college, how to afford it and just how far they can go. Later this spring, she will return to her high school to meet with Hispanic immigrant families. “They care about their children’s education,” she says. “They’re willing to work hard for it.  There are so many little things that could make a big difference if we reach out to others.”

Photography by David Wilson, University Relations